By WorldTeach American Samoa volunteer Marcela Trocha, 2016

When I arrived in American Samoa on August 7th, 2016, I had no expectations for my experience as a high school science teacher at Tafuna High School or as a resident of the new country, and I didn’t comprehend how quickly the time would pass. The halfway mark of my time here has officially come and gone, and time is speeding up more than ever. The things I’ve learned in the past 5 months have been invaluable. I have developed as a leader, both in the classroom and outside of the classroom. I have grown to adapt to foreign conditions more than ever before. I have studied an unfamiliar culture and analyzed its successes and drawbacks. Most importantly, I have learned things about myself that will help me wherever life takes me next.

To me, the most encouraging aspect of Samoan culture is its caring nature. It was almost immediate when we arrived, the feeling of appreciation from local people for our service, but even more so the integration into a place where every person cares for one another. In the classroom, my students are often fighting each other (in playful ways that sometimes turn into more), but at the end of the day, if one student opens up a soda can, it will inevitably be passed to anyone in class who is thirsty. If I take one student’s phone as a punishment, the whole class will yell in defense to make sure they get it back. I’ve never walked down a road for longer than 10 minutes – eventually a pick up truck will pull aside and offer a ride to the nearest bus stop or to my next location. Spend more than 20 minutes with a Samoan and they won’t let you turn down food – a snack from the convenience store, or part of their McAiga meal from McDonalds. The chill atmosphere that many people describe as ‘island life’ stems from the feeling of togetherness and looking out for your own people. The island is small, life is simple, and enjoyment is found in friendship and family.

On this note, it’s important to explain the most distinct sound that comes to my mind when thinking of American Samoa – laughter. I realized this most when I was traveling for Christmas. Immediately when I arrived at the gate that would put me on the plane to bring me back home, to Pago Pago, I heard the laughter that became commonplace in the fall. Such joy and happiness in such an audible tone. It’ll bring a smile to your face just being around it, and so, most of the time, life is full of laughter and smiles. In the classroom, the simplest jokes bring laughter – misplacing an ‘e’ in a name, or giving a confused look. At first, I got frustrated, always feeling as if I had done something wrong, but with understanding, it’s become something to enjoy.

On the other hand, the most frustrating aspect of this experience (besides the insane heat at a time when I’m used to feet and feet of snow) has been understanding that, in this culture, education does not come first. Through traveling, I’ve learned that perspectives are different everywhere, but its difficult to come to terms with a differing view to a perspective that I am deep-rooted in.  I was raised in a household that pushed me to put my academics above all else. Even throughout school, my community pushed my education to the forefront, and everything else came secondary. I could easily get out of chores, sports practices or church activities by excusing myself to do homework. That is not the case here. Education is not the first, the second, or even the third point of focus. My students receive their homework, only 10 questions per week, with appalled looks on their faces as if they’ve never seen anything like it. They look at their ‘D’ grades as signs of success. Half of them can’t speak English in a way that I can communicate what they should be learning. Critical thinking and creativity in the classroom are foreign concepts.

As a result, there is a low graduation rate, a low rate of students who move on to pursue higher educations and a low rate of qualified professionals, especially teachers, in the system. The implications this has on the future of American Samoa are worrisome – with a widely uneducated community, how will the beautiful culture and country stay alive and achieve success?

The things that come before education should not be disregarded – they include family obligations (and families come in BIG sizes), chores, and church duties – all of which craft prosperous individuals, but without education, these qualities cannot be fully harnessed.

Being at the halfway point is weird – I’ve become so comfortable where I am, familiar with customs and accepting of the relaxed lifestyle. My students truly bring me joy, no matter how much they drive me nut-so some days…understanding their personalities, watching them mature, seeing them learn, and following the growth of their relationships is surprisingly motivating. If I can walk away from this experience knowing one student thought deeper about things than before my class, even if those things don’t involve volcanoes or the moon, I’ll be content.
As for island explorations, I’ve been slacking a bit. There is so much to see in this beautiful place, and though I’ve been captivated by adventures, I’m compelled to have more and make more memories this year. Though I’ve camped on beautiful beaches, been scratched painfully by coral, eaten as much palusami (coconut cream in taro leaves) as is humanly possible, drank endless niu (young coconut), and made amazing friends, I won’t leave this country without climbing every mountain, swimming in every cove, and especially jumping off every (semi-safe) cliff.

This post originally appeared on Marcela’s personal blog, which can be found here