Albert Bernales (Fiji 2020- )
Todd R. Hansen Daily Republic
FAIRFIELD – More than 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers, working in more than 60 countries, were evacuated in March 2020 due to the onset of the Covid-19 emergency.
Albert Bernales, 26, of Fairfield, is one of the first to return back into service. He has been assigned to Fiji.
Formed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, more than 240,000 Americans have served in 142 countries.
Like Kennedy’s daring mission to send America to the moon, it was then Sen. Kennedy, running for the White House in 1960, who challenged college students and young adults to get involved in public service.
“How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana?” Kennedy asked the more than 10,000 University of Michigan students who came out to his campaign stop.
“Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past,” Kennedy added.
It was not Kennedy who inspired Bernales, but some of his professors at was then California State University, Humboldt – now Cal Poly Humboldt.
Bernales said one of those professors was one of the earliest volunteers when the Peace Corps was formed, so he is pretty sure she was inspired by Kennedy.
“A lot of my professors did Peace Corps and told some pretty interesting stories,” Bernales said, and talked about the impacts those experiences had on their lives.
So after the 2014 Vanden High alum graduated with his business degree from Humboldt in 2018, he joined the Peace Corps. He was sent to East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, but officially is the island nation of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Lestea.
“I was part of the community economic development. I worked with a radio station; I worked in a youth center; I worked with a women’s organization,” Bernales said.
“I taught English, of course, but I’m also a cook, so I did teach some cooking and I taught some math,” said Bernales, who holds a minor in economics out of Humboldt, too.
His fondest memories of his time in Indonesia are the cooking classes.
“I used to cook a lot for my friends as an undergraduate, and to take cooking there, we had a lot of fun,” said Bernales, noting the various cultural dishes they prepared together. “Food is the passport to the world.”
And for whatever he provided to those he worked with, Bernales said he received as much or more. He said he learned a new language, teteum, learned about a new culture, and “met a lot of really nice people.”
Bernales was born in Okinawa. His father was in the U.S. Navy. The family lived briefly in the Philippines, then moved to Washington state and then California.
“We moved around, but I did more of my school here (in Fairfield),” Bernales said.
He said the family enjoyed traveling from their various homes, even day trips to explore new areas.
Bernales said that certainly whet his appetite to explore the world through the Peace Corps, adding that his parents were very supportive of him.
After being evacuated due to the pandemic, Bernales returned to school and earned his master’s at George Washington University in Washington D.C., finishing the course work last May.
But he his anxious to return to the Peace Corps service, leaving for Fiji on Jan. 20.
“As a business volunteer, I hope to share an entrepreneur’s mindset with community members in Fiji and hopefully get them excited about business,” he said.
Bernales said he would recommend the Peace Corps to anyone who is interested, but said the group is looking for individuals who have certain skill sets, specifically agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health or youth in development.
So, he added, it is a good idea to go to a university or put some work experience together first.
“It’s very challenging, but you do end up with a lot of great stories and experiences, and you get a really good network of people,” said Bernales, who still keeps in touch with some of his Peace Corps friends.
“Just have an open mind and be open to something new.”