You NEED to See The World! How Peace Corps and Fulbright Changed My Life

by Amanda Bent / Jan 15, 2015 /
Amanda Bent's picture

In 2000, Mike Roman went on a life-changing venture through the Peace Corps to the island nation of Kiribati, a nation on the frontlines of climate change. In 2010, he travelled to New Zealand as a Fulbright teaching assistant at the University of Waikato, where he rejoined many of his Kiribati family members who had migrated to New Zealand. His experiences abroad prompted him to pursue and now hold an MA in Applied Anthropology, an MPH in Behavioral and Communication Health Sciences, and a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology. Read on to learn more about how these global experiences changed his life...

Mike Roman. You NEED to See The World! How Peace Corps and Fulbright Changed My Life
 
What motivated your decision to go abroad?

My decision to go abroad was motivated by my past. From 2000 to 2002, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kiribati, one of the first nations predicted to disappear as a result of climate change. Having prolonged involvement with the country, I have witnessed much of its lands disappear as a result of changing ecological patterns and rising tides. I did the Fulbright in conjunction with my Ph.D. to raise a greater awareness of the immense environmental challenges Kiribati and other low-lying atoll nations face today as a result of Climate Change.

What was your experience like?

My abroad experiences were eye opening, challenging, heartbreaking, powerful, and ultimately added great purpose to my life. Living with members of my original host family (who had migrated to New Zealand), throughout the duration of my Fulbright, forced me to intimately experience the trials and tribulations of living a transnational life. Their stories became the subject of my dissertation.

Mike Roman with family in NZ

What skills did you develop from your experience abroad?

Between Peace Corps and Fulbright, I learned new languages, new cultures, and how to live in different environments with diverse groups of people. The experiences opened many opportunities for me to get involved with various international organizations, and gain greater understanding of others in this world.

Do you feel changed from your experience abroad? If so, how and why?

Yes. I can never be who I was before I left. My experiences have left a mark on me forever. I saw things very differently than before I left, and I learned how to cope with constant reverse culture shock. I attended a town festival, shortly after returning from Peace Corps. One of the highlighted contests at the event posed town leaders against community members in a water battle, where each team used water from fire hoses to push a tethered barrel onto the opposing team's side. Standing there watching, I couldn't help but feel hurt, and angry at the wastefulness of the game. I remembered how many hours it took just to make a safe glass of water in the village. They must have gone through enough water to supply the needs of my village for days within only a few minutes of time!

What were some challenges that you observed while you were abroad?

With Peace Corps, everything was a challenge. I felt like a baby. I had to learn how to do everything over again. I had to learn how to walk, talk, and even go to the bathroom, since using a pit latrine properly was a skill I did not possess my first time abroad. Fetching water for "flushing," bucket baths, and personal consumption made me appreciate water like NEVER before. Despite initial adjustment problems, surprisingly, the hardest thing for me was learning how to readjust to life in the U.S. In fact, I still haven't fully adjusted.

Did anything about your experience shock or surprise you?

The last part of my Fulbright took me back to Kiribati for one month. I was fortunate to celebrate Christmas and New Years with the rest of my Kiribati family who stayed behind. Many lands I once knew, were now under the ocean. This was my biggest shock. Climate Change was not some far off theoretical concept, it was there, the land was gone, and climate refugees, a term I detested, was now in my face. Going back and seeing the village under the ocean shocked me. 

King Tides washing over Kiribati, 2005

In 2005, King Tides washed over the land.

In 2008, the seawater forced residents to relocate to the perimeter of the watery reservoir. Scattered shanties and barren coconut trees surrounded the inundated land.

Kiribati - landscape changing as a result of climate change, 2008

In 2011, there was virtually nothing but ocean.

Kiribati, 2011

Has your experience helped you get to where you are today? If so, how?

In many aspects, yes. My experiences completely changed my life course. I finished my doctorate in 2014. Now I am trying to raise awareness of what is happening on the other side of the world by turning my Ph.D. work into public talks, blogs, and a documentary this spring at the University of Cincinnati. I am always searching for opportunities to present these stories from the frontlines of climate change.

What advice would you share with other students who are thinking of going abroad?

DO IT! You NEED to see the world! When you come back, share your experiences and encourage others to go abroad! You may not change the world but you will change how you see the world. This quote by Henry Rollins states exactly how I feel about the whole abroad experience:
 
"I beg young people to travel. If you don't have a passport, get one. Take a summer, get a backpack and go to Delhi, go to Saigon, go to Bangkok, go to Kenya. Have your mind blown, eat interesting food, dig some interesting people, have an adventure, be careful. Come back and you're going to see your country differently, you're going to see your president differently, no matter who it is. Music, culture, food, water. Your showers will become shorter. You're going to get a sense of what globalization looks like. You're going to see that global climate change is very real. And that for some people, their day consists of walking 12 miles for four buckets of water. And so there are lessons that you can't get out of a book that are waiting for you at the other end of that flight. A lot of people - Americans and Europeans - come back and go, 'ohhhhh' and the lightbulb goes on."

Mike Roman and Family in NZ

 

Mike is currently working as an academic advisor at the University of Cincinnati and is seeking ways to further share his stories on the Pacific. He invites all who are interested to check out his blog, "When There Was No Money" here: whentherewasnomoney.blogspot.com. You can find him on twitter @Kiribatiboy2002

 

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This is part of a series on international education, as part of our commitment to #GenerationStudyAbroad and our commitment to the White House Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship. You'll find many more inspiring stories here on Wandering Educators!

 

 

Amanda Bent is the Cultural Awareness and Diversity Editor for Wandering Educators and works in in English Department as the Undergraduate Programs and Web Coordinator at San Francisco State University. She holds a BA in Anthropology and English Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, and is currently enrolled in the Masters in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) program at SFSU.