Tracking Down PCVs Trained at UH Hilo

UH Hilo political scientist Su-Mi Lee compiles biographies from Peace Corp volunteers with ties to Hawai‘i Island

The project is significant to UH Hilo because Hawai‘i Island was chosen as a primary training location for thousands of Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s and the university’s precursor—UH-Hilo Branch—contributed greatly to the training program.

Group of 10 people stand next to large plaque.
A local group involved in promoting acknowledgement of returned Peace Corps volunteers to Hawai‘i Island stand for a group photo at a plaque erected on the UH Hilo campus to commemorate John F. Kennedy who began the Peace Corps program. In the group are Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth (center) with Assistant Professor of Political Science Su-Mi Lee (fifth from left), returned Peace Corps volunteers, Rotary club members, a librarian from UH Hilo’s Mookini Library, and students including Lee’s student assistant Nikki Jicha (fourth from left). (Courtesy photo)

By Susan Enright

A political scientist at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is collecting biographical stories of Peace Corps volunteers who have ties to Hawai‘i Island.

Su- Mi Lee pictured
Su-Mi Lee

This spring, Su-Mi-Lee, an associate professor of political science and chair of the department, which is housed in the College of Arts and Sciences, received a grant from the college to advance the project.

This inquiry is significant to UH Hilo because Hawai‘i Island was chosen as a primary training location for thousands of Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s and the university’s precursor—University of Hawai‘i-Hilo Branch—contributed greatly to that training. And many of those Peace Corps volunteers, who spent years forming connections abroad during their Peace Corp work, returned to Hawai‘i Island, enriching local communities with their professional lives and service.

The Peace Corps stories Lee is collecting are from 1) people who did their corps training on Hawai‘i Island and came back to live, 2) staffers who trained Peace Corps volunteers on Hawai‘i Island, 3) returning Peace Corps volunteers who are from Hawai‘i Island where they did their Peace Corp training and may or may not currently live on the island, and 3) returning Peace Corp volunteers who chose to live on Hawai‘i Island after their Peace Corps experience.

Lee’s goal is to document these stories for future generations to read and learn about the personal and professional value of direct engagement with people in other countries. She sees great value in youth learning about working and communicating internationally with others regardless of cultural differences as a way to help create peace between countries. She wants young people to see that although the launch of the Peace Corps back in the 1960s was part of the U.S. government’s effort to “win the hearts and minds” of people in the third world during the Cold War, it also was a two-way cultural exchange of great value to the volunteers.

“Although the U.S. government’s intention was to change the perception of people living in the third world about Americans, Peace Corps volunteers gained invaluable experience that has changed the trajectory of their lives,” says Lee. “Some of them developed long-lasting friendships with people in the country they visited as a volunteer. This is what public-civilian diplomacy is about.”

Lee hopes to archive the collection of stories at the university’s Mookini Library or possibly publish a book if the project can be extended for the time needed to collect more stories. “For now, we are collecting as many stories as possible.”

Student involvement in the project
Nikki Jicha pictured
Nikki Jicha

Assisting with the work of collecting the stories is undergraduate Nikki Jicha, a junior majoring in accounting with a certificate in business analytics. Jicha is transcribing previously recorded interviews with returned Peace Corps volunteers and also is working directly collecting stories from returnees who are currently here on the island.

Jicha says working on this project to preserve the knowledge and experience of Peace Corps volunteers for future generations has helped her develop a sense of social responsibility and commitment to make a positive impact on the world.

“Not only has this project increased my editing and project management skills, but it has also awarded me with the opportunity to learn from the stories of the volunteers, something that is beneficial both for my personal and professional growth,” she says.

“As someone who wishes to become a CPA accountant, I believe that this work is contributing to my future goals by providing me with new perspectives and the opportunity to expand my knowledge base. By learning and writing about the life experiences of these volunteers, it inspires me to be dedicated to making a positive difference in the lives of others.”

Former Peace Corp Volunteer Willem “Bill” Sakovich
Willem “Bill” Sakovich pictured.
Willem “Bill” Sakovich

One Peace Corps volunteer story is about Willem “Bill” Sakovich, a lecturer in UH Hilo’s Department of Kinesiology and Exercise Sciences who Lee says has been collecting Peace Corps stories on his own for awhile through his own networks. “I initiated this project to help him and achieve something tangible out of it,” says Lee.

Sakovich is well known in Hilo for being a swim coach at Waiakea High School and for Hilo Aquatics Club teams. His career as a swimming teacher and coach began when he taught physical education and coached swimming at club and national levels in Bandung, Indonesia, and Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1964-1966.

As an inductee of the Hawai‘i Swimming Hall of Fame, he has taught swimming and coached swimming teams all around the world including many islands in the South Pacific. He was honored by Oceania Swimming Association and UN International Volunteer Day 2017 as “Father of Swimming in the Pacific.”

Sakovich served as the head of the organizing committee of the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Celebration and Reunion held in 2011 and was a co-producer of the film, Peace Corps Training on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, that covers the history of Peace Corps volunteer training on Hawai‘i Island from 1962 through 1971.

Public diplomacy

Associate Professor Lee’s area of expertise is in public diplomacy, meaning she advocates for ways in which foreign publics, especially of differing countries, can be included in the international exchange of policy ideas traditionally reserved for political leaders. This inclusion builds mutual trust and productive relationships between the people of different countries, a cross-cultural exchange that Lee believes is crucial to building harmony between seemingly disparate countries around the world.

“I am an advocate of public diplomacy,” says Lee. “We can speak to political leaders directly to change their policies, but it would also be important and effective to reach out to the public in other countries to establish and maintain friendly relations between the two countries.”

Logo for the Peace Unification Advisory Council, in both English and Korean, with a blue and gold flower at the center.Lee is a member of the Peace Unification Advisory Council’s Hawai‘i Chapter, appointed last year by the President of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) to a two-year term.

“As a constitutional non-partisan government agency, the council aims to promote a democratic and peaceful unification of the two Koreas,” explains Lee. To achieve this, the group hosts events, reaching out to people in other countries and engaging them in its activities.

“Although the primary mission of the council is to help unite the two Koreas, North and South Korea, it aims to help create peace and harmony in every community around the world, regardless of differences we may have in principles, values, religions, or cultures,” says Lee. “By participating in these types of events, I engage in public diplomacy [for which] I advocate professionally and would like our students to learn about.”

The political scientist sees her Peace Corps project as an extension of this kind of work. She envisions the work leading to a larger project to teach K-12 teachers around the country about the Peace Corps program and the indispensable role Hawai‘i Island played in U.S. history, along with the stories of the volunteers who returned to the island. The teachers could then teach their students about these subjects.

“[I think this would be] the most effective way to share these inspiring stories with the next generations,” Lee says. She plans to seek funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the larger project.

Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

Riana Jicha, a double major in administration of justice and political science at UH Hilo, contributed to this story.

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