UH Hilo political scientist Su-Mi Lee compiles biographies from Peace Corps 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 on the UH Hilo campus to commemorate President John F. Kennedy who began the Peace Corps program (see details about the plaque in photo below). In the group are left to right, former Hawai‘i County prosecutor and Rotarian Charlene Iboshi, returning Peace Corps volunteer Bill Sakovich, UH Hilo librarian Michelle Fernandez, UH Hilo political science student Riana Jicha, Associate Professor of Political Science Su-Mi Lee, Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth, returning Peace Corps volunteers Julie and Jon Countess, UH Hilo political science alumnus Kalanihula Forbes, and UH Hilo political science student Darrell Silva. (Courtesy photo)

By Susan Enright.

Su- Mi Lee pictured
Su-Mi Lee

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.

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 funding 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 Corps work, returned to Hawai‘i Island, enriching local communities with their professional lives and service.

Large installation with JFK quote "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Below is a description of the Peace Corps training that took place on Hawai‘i Island in the 1960s.
The plaque above honors President John F. Kennedy and his creation of the new agency, the Peace Corps, an opportunity for Americans to serve their country and the world. 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. The plaque was originally placed at the Hawai‘i Island Peace Corps Training Center, located at the Hilo Memorial Hospital, and was later moved to the UH Hilo campus as pictured above. Click photo to enlarge. (Cooper Lund/UH Hilo Stories)

The Peace Corps stories Lee and others on the project are 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 Corps training and may or may not currently live on the island, and 3) returning Peace Corps 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 the collection of stories will be archived at the university’s Mookini Library or possibly published as 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 Corps 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 the Warrior Aquatics Club, a non-profit that provides programs and education for competitive aquatic training and water safety.

He trained for the Peace Corps on Hawai‘i Island at the old Hilo Memorial Hospital in 1964. 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 1964-66. He then returned to Hawai‘i Island after his Peace Corps service to run training programs.

“I trained in Hilo in 1964, loved the Big Island and Hilo and its people, and was offered a job working other training programs,” says Sakovich. “Later I met my wife here.”

As an inductee of the Hawai‘i Swimming Hall of Fame, Sakovich 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.

4/27/2023: Information has been corrected about Bill Sakovich’s work with the Warrior Aquatics Club (not the Hilo Aquatics Club). Information about his 1964 Peace Corps training at the old Hilo Memorial Hospital has been added to the story along with a quotation about later meeting his wife on the Big Island.

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.  

Cooper Lund, who photographed the plaque, is majoring in marine science.

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