North Central College - Naperville, IL

Peace corps volunteer finds familiar issues in new culture

Unemployment makes the news nearly every day, but Emily MacGruder ’06 is tackling the issue in a country that doesn’t make the evening news: Tonga. Assigned to the island nation in 2007 through the Peace Corps, MacGruder works with the Ministry of Training, Employment, Youth and Sports to help unemployed Tongans.

“We’ve found that jobseekers here often do not have a good idea of the realities of the job, nor do they know how to interview or how to interact with an employer,” she says. “Many don’t show up for interviews or the first day of work. So we developed skills training and we invite employers and successful job-seekers to talk to the participants.”

MacGruder says that she sometimes becomes frustrated at the slow pace of the training process, but as long as she maintains a sense of humor, she receives respect.

A secondary project involves working on HIV/AIDS awareness with five other Peace Corps volunteers. “Since Tonga is such a conservative society, we’ve been careful to approach the topic in a culturally sensitive manner,” she says. “Our group acts out through skits and discusses issues dealing with responsible decision-making and behaviors. Then we separate the male and female youth and do what we call the ‘straight talk’ where we discuss the risk level of certain activities and answer personal questions.”

On a more festive note, a recent highlight was lunching with the King of Tonga. “Along with five other volunteers, I was invited to a lunch in honor of the new U.S. Ambassador to the region, Steven McCann,” she explains. “Imagine my surprise when the King took the seat to my left!

I was able to get in a few words on topics I’m familiar with (burgers, French fries and Americans marrying Tongans) and I noticed the King often turned to me when he was making a joke. I’ll treasure the experience as it may be my only chance to lunch with a king!”

Another memorable experience was traveling to Australia last summer with Tongan youth to attend World Youth Day and seeing Pope Benedict XVI.

Despite missing family holidays and friends’ weddings the past 18 months, MacGruder hasn’t regretted her decision. “I had a desire to use my skills to serve people who weren’t fortunate enough to be born in a country like the United States,” she says. “I also wanted to see if international development was something I wanted to do with my life. North Central’s excellent study abroad programs and Richter grants allowed a farm girl who had never traveled to another country to visit three foreign countries in four years while a student. After I return to the States in November or December 2009, I plan to pursue a master’s in international relations or development. I miss the academic atmosphere I found at NCC.”

North Central NOW Spring 2009