Erika Utter Interview: Returning from American Samoa
By: Shierly Mondianti
In this week’s blogpost, I sat down with my fellow intern, Erika Utter, who is our Alumni Engagement intern. Erika recently returned from American Samoa, and I thought that it would be a great opportunity to interview her and share her experience on the blog.
Check out the scoop below:
(S: Shierly, E: Erika)
S: Erika, tell me more about yourself—what were you doing before WorldTeach (WT), what made you decide to start with WT, and why American Samoa?
E: I was working in Atlanta, GA at a doggie day care. A friend from college wrote a post about WorldTeach finding volunteers for American Samoa, and I was intrigued.
S: Talk me through your day in American Samoa.
E: I lived on the outer island of Ta’u in a village called Faleasao. It is a village of maybe 100 people, so rather small. There are 2 stores in the village. They are the hang out spots for the community. My neighbor, Leafa, is an owner of one of the stores where she sells canned foods, chips, candies and such. In my free time, I would hang out with her and help out at her store. I would also do some cooking, reading, swimming and snorkeling. There is a cookbook that was handed down from another WT alum and I used that quite frequently to bake all sorts of bread.
S: Wow, a cookbook. That’s really cool, I will be very interested to get my hands on that!
E: Yeah, definitely. It has all these great recipes that the American Samoa alum compiled over her volunteer year and it became really useful while I was out there.
S: So, to change the subject, have you taught before? Could you elaborate on some of the rewards and challenges that you faced in regards to teaching?
E: I never taught before, so it was my first time. I had 8 sixth graders and luckily they were the same students year round so we developed a bond with each other. I taught them all subjects, and managing the classroom was fairly easy. I brought one student out of the Special Education department; he couldn’t really read so we worked on that. The previous year the student was in Special Education and they were thinking of retaining him, but first they wanted to give him a chance with me, and so I worked with him the whole year. The coordinator in charge of that department came in half way through the year and they assessed him and said that he doesn’t need to be retained. The year prior he had missed half the school year, and with me he had zero absences. I encouraged him to go to school. One thing I struggled with was making the lesson plans fun with limited resources. But thankfully there was Diana, a previous WT teacher who was still working in the school, in her third year. She had teaching experience in Thailand and the states so it was nice having her by my side.
S: Could you tell us more about the infamous “island fever?” What are some of the things you do to combat it and what advice do you have for others?
E: I did not spend a lot of time talking to my family and friends back home, because I didn’t want to become home sick. I mostly talked to a lot of the other volunteers and went swimming. Sometimes, a few of us would walk to the next village to swim at the wharf or visit the other volunteers. I would recommend bringing books, movies and board games so that you don’t get island fever. Being involved with the community is also something I would recommend.
S: You recently returned from American Samoa. Tell me about how it is like to leave and what is the plan moving forward?
E: It was difficult to leave because you become part of the community. Going forward, I am still trying to figure things out, but I definitely want to continue working in non-profit and specifically in the field of education.
S: What did you miss most about American Samoa, do you think you will ever visit again or do another teaching-abroad/volunteer-abroad program?
E: I will miss the generosity of the Samoans. They took me in, specifically my neighbor, who is my Samoan mother. I would like to visit again, but it is difficult to get to the outer island, so it will be a while before I can return to paradise.
Erika’s tips & tricks for future volunteers
1) Read the blogs of current and past volunteers
It will help with packing (for e.g. Am-Sam: thin and light t-shirts, humidity might damage some electronics, get waterproof stuff)
2) Hang out with friends and family and say goodbye
Father recommended keeping a personal blog to look back on the positive experiences
3) Learn as much as possible everyday (local languages and phrases)
4) Be open, be friendly, be yourself
It gets tiring over time to try and make friends with people all the time, but try to get involved, smile, and hangout with the locals. Samoans really appreciate it if you take the effort, they talk all the time.
5) Don’t just sit in your house like a hermit crab
Go out there and talk to people, embrace the opportunity. I came back more sociable due to this experience.
If you are interested in learning more about WorldTeach, check out our website at www.worldteach.org. If you have any additional questions, feel free to email us at [email protected] or give us a call at 857.259.6646!