Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Caitlin Dickson, June 19, 2020

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Joining the Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: This Evelyn Ganzglass. Today is June nineteenth. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Somalia from 1966 to 1968 and today I am interviewing Caitlin Dickson who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji from August 2019 to March 2020 when she was evacuated because of COVID-19.

Segment Synopsis: Dickson shares her reasoning for initially joining the Peace Corps. Prior to joining Peace Corps, Dickson worked in youth development and as a nanny. Her past experience working with children coupled with her interest in other cultures sparked an interest in spending two years in a foreign country with Peace Corps. Dickson initially applied to the Dominican Republic while she was still in college. A few months later she was invited to interview for Fiji and ended up taking the interview, simultaneously canceling her application to the Dominican Republic. Dickson had heard of Peace Corps in high school and again from some of the women in her college sorority. She grew up in northern Virginia and studied Business Information Technology and Spanish at Virginia Tech. Dickson decided to apply to Peace Corps before telling her parents. Once they had time to process it, her friends and family were supportive of her decision. Dickson graduated in May of 2019 and met with her 30-person group the following August.

Keywords: Applications; Background; Camps; Careers; Childhood; College; College majors; Dominican Republic; Fiji; George C. Marshall High School; Graduations; High school; Interests; Interviewing; Interviews; Nannies; Parents; Sororities; Spanish degrees; Spanish-speaking countries; Studying abroad; Vienna (Va.); Virginia; Virginia Tech; Youth empowerment

Subjects: Business--Information technology; Children; Culture; Fairfax County (Va.); Families; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji; Travel; Traveling; University of Michigan; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers; Volunteers

GPS: Fiji
Map Coordinates: -18, 179
GPS: Vienna, Fairfax County, Virginia.
Map Coordinates: 38.9, -77.266667
00:05:13 - Arrival in Fiji / Training

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Partial Transcript: Okay, so after a very, very long flight, undoubtedly, uh, you got to Fiji. Actually, I don't know how you get to Fiji. Do you fly nonstop or how do you get to Fiji?

Segment Synopsis: In August of 2019, Dickson flew from Los Angeles to Fiji. Upon their arrival in Fiji, they were welcomed by Peace Corps Fiji with signs and gifts. They took a bus from the airport to a resort where they had orientation. Their training consisted mainly of language training. The volunteers were split into groups based on villages and were accompanied by a Language and Culture Facilitator. In addition to language, Dickson recalls learning about safety, culture, and local traditions. Following a two month training period, volunteers spent a week in the capital, buying supplies and meeting their key counterparts.

Keywords: Air travel; Airports; Buses; Flags; Flights; Flying; Greetings; International airports; Language culture facilitators; Language training; Los Angeles (Calif.); Orientation; Resorts; Safety; Security; Tourists; Traditions; Training; Transportation; Villages

Subjects: Culture; Flights around the world; Language and culture; Nadi (Fiji); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji; Suva (Fiji); Travel; Traveling; Volunteer workers; Volunteers

00:08:37 - Traveling and working in Ovalau

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Partial Transcript: And, so you bought all of your stuff and how did you get to--where was your site? Was it near, near the capital or was it far away and how did you get there?

Segment Synopsis: Dickson recalls spending some time in Suva, the capital of Fiji. While in the capital, the volunteers shopped for all of the supplies they would need for the next two years. Dickson describes traveling about 6 hours to her assigned village via bus and ferry. She was accompanied to her island by two other volunteers. Dickson describes where her house was situated on the island, sharing that one view was the ocean and the other was mountains. Dickson worked for three days in a local school to earn money for food, focusing on assisting sixth grade teachers in English and math. She also worked in the school library and as a monitor during recess. Dickson held a professional training day for the teachers, explaining Excel and how it could be utilized.

Keywords: Boat rides; Boats; Capital; Children; Farmers; Ferries; Ferry rides; Libraries; Locals; Mainland; Maps; Outer islands; Ovalau (Fiji); Ports; Site; Students; Transportation; Villagers; Villages; Worksite

Subjects: Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji; Suva (Fiji); Teachers; Teaching; Travel; Traveling; Volunteer workers; Volunteers

GPS: Suva, the capital and largest metropolitan city in Fiji.
Map Coordinates: -18.1416, 178.4419
GPS: Ovalau, sixth largest island in Fiji.
Map Coordinates: -17.688056, 178.790556
00:13:25 - Living conditions

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Partial Transcript: And, and what was your living arrangement? Did you live with a family or by yourself?

Segment Synopsis: Dickson shares that she and the other two volunteers had their own houses and did not live with host families. She describes her house as rectangular with a main room and a bedroom. She explains that she was happy to have an indoor bathroom and shower as it was common for houses to have outdoor bathrooms in Fiji. The house was made of tin, so it got quite warm. She shares that youth would come visit her house and would help with taking care of her lawn. Dickson recalls going fishing with one of the families in the village and enjoyed learning how that worked.

Keywords: Bathrooms; Cleaning; Farming; Host families; Houses; Housing structures; Indoor plumbing; Living arrangements; Living conditions; Living situations; Outdoor plumbing; Students; Tin houses; Villages; Youth

Subjects: Agriculture; Children; Chores; Fishing; Peace Corps (US.)--Fiji; Travel; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers; Volunteers

00:15:33 - Impact of COVID-19 / Evacuation

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Partial Transcript: So how did you first hear about COVID? Did you know anything was going on in the world?

Segment Synopsis: Dickson initially did not even hear about COVID or know what it was. Signal in her village was patchy and she recalls getting a message while in her home from the country director. The country director told them they would be evacuated and told the volunteers to start packing. Dickson remembers being shocked, as they were first informed that they could choose to terminate their trip early. She then received a second message saying that they no longer had an option and had to evacuate. After getting the message, Dickson began alerting the locals she worked with in the village and in the school. Families in her village put together a last minute going away feast for her, where each of the families brought a dish. During evacuation, Dickson boarded a bus to the capital, where they waited at Peace Corps headquarters. They boarded another bus, picking up volunteers on the way to the airport. Upon returning to the United States, Dickson self-quarantined in a hotel to protect her parents. Dickson described arriving in the Los Angeles airport as surreal, as it is typically busy but was almost empty when they arrived.

Keywords: Airports; Cases; Connections; Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19); Country directors; Evacuations; Flights; Hometowns; National news; News; Packing; Pandemics; Peace Corps volunteers; Positive cases; Reactions; Schools; Self-quarantine; Shock; Signals; Villages

Subjects: COVID-19 (Disease); Families; Hotels; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji; Quarantine; Travel; Traveling; Volunteer workers in education; Volunteers

GPS: Fiji
Map Coordinates: -18, 179
00:24:44 - Quarantine

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Partial Transcript: And then you flew home? You went to a, a hotel?

Segment Synopsis: Dickson recalls flying home from Los Angeles and arriving at 1 am. The next day she checked into a hotel, where she remained for the rest of the thirteen day quarantine period. Dickson shares that quarantine passed in a blur for her. She experienced jet-lag, which she describes as convenient as she could catch up with her friends in Fiji via social media. Dickson also shares that she brought weights with her to the hotel so she was able to work out while in quarantine. She spent a lot of her time watching movies and catching up with friends. Her family were excited to have her back but were considerate about her experience ending prematurely.

Keywords: Activities; Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19); Daylight savings; Facebook; Friends; International calls; Jet-lag; Movies; Reading; Self-quarantine; Sleeping schedule; Time differences; Washington (D.C.); Weights; Working out; Workouts

Subjects: COVID-19 (Disease); Hotels; Quarantine; Social media; Travel; Traveling; Volunteers

GPS: Washington, D.C.
Map Coordinates: 38.9101, -77.0147
00:27:29 - Plans for the future

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Partial Transcript: So what have you, what have you been doing since you've come back?

Segment Synopsis: Dickson has been volunteering as a website designer for the Return Peace Corps Volunteers for Environmental Action: redesigning webpages, analyzing data, and working in the background. Dickson shares that she enjoys working with her team members and they are helpful in answering her questions. She has been applying for two jobs a week, sending applications to a wide variety of places as she is not sure what fields she is interested in. She is now working on her Peace Corps application to re-enroll in a Spanish-speaking country.

Keywords: Applications; Co-founders; Data analysis; Employment; Environmental actions; Job applications; Job search; Park guides; Re-enrollment; Reading; Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV); Team members; User experiences; User interfaces; Web designers; Webpages; Website designers

Subjects: Careers; Job hunting; National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers; Peace Corps (U.S.), Returned Volunteer Services; Volunteers; Web sites

00:30:05 - Reflecting on her experience

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Partial Transcript: So when you think of your, your short experience, what, what, what do, what do you think about it?

Segment Synopsis: Although it ended unexpectedly, Dickson is very glad that she had the experience. The Peace Corps workers and volunteers that she worked with were very helpful in her transition back to home. One of the biggest lessons Dickson learned through her experience was that making connections with people wherever you are helps provide a sense of home. No matter how different your backgrounds may be, you can always find some sense of connection with others. In her short stay, Dickson set up a study hall for the children there to encourage their learning. She created the program to exist without her, so they could continue running it without her needing to be there. She hopes the program will help the confidence of the students.

Keywords: Cohorts; Common ground; Confidence; Connections; Contributions; Conversations; Curiosity; Experiences; Lessons; Monitors; Peace Corps staff; Reflections; Students; Study halls; Transitions

Subjects: Acculturation; Children; Culture shock; Interpersonal relations and culture; Peace Corps (U.S.) -- Fiji; Studying; Teaching; Travel; Tutors and tutoring; Volunteers

GPS: Fiji
Map Coordinates: -18, 179
00:33:12 - Aid for evacuated volunteers / Difficulties as a volunteer

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Partial Transcript: And let me ask one more question. I, I know the Peace Corps community, the National Peace Corps Association, lots of returned volunteers have been active in trying to help, uh, evacuated volunteers. Uh, do you have any thoughts about all of those activities?

Segment Synopsis: Dickson shares that she connected to other returned volunteers via a Facebook group. She found it helpful as they understood Peace Corps and its significance. On the Facebook groups, volunteers offered food, therapy groups, and housing options for evacuated volunteers. Dickson considers herself lucky to have had a relatively smooth transition back home, as she could eventually return to her parents. She shares that she enjoyed the connections that she was able to make in Fiji in such a short time, and plans to return and say a proper goodbye to her friends there. Dickson concludes the interview by sharing the difficulties she faced as a Peace Corps volunteer. A major obstacle she faced was being a person of color in Fiji. She found that there were some racial tensions and Dickson explained that she experienced more blatant racism in Fiji than she ever had before in the United States. She shares that some people she encountered could be very aggressive in questioning her about her country of origin. Dickson discovered that most of the stereotypes the Fijians expected were from movies or the media. Peace Corps did include a section on diversity in their training, but Dickson felt that the training was mainly surface level discussions.

Keywords: Activities; Aid; Difficulties; Diversity; Evacuation; Facebook; Facebook groups; Facebook pages; Fijian roots; Housing; Indian slaves; National Peace Corps Association; Obstacles; People of color; RPCV groups; Racial tensions; Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV); Therapy groups; Transitions

Subjects: COVID-19 (Disease); Education; Ethnicity; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.). Returned Volunteer Services; Race relations; Racism; Social media; Teaching diversity; Training; Voluntarism; Volunteers