UH Hilo Alumni Recalls Experience with the Peace Corps
By Allegra Diaz
Photos Courtesy of Artem Sergeyev
(Kavadarci, North Macedonia. Winter 2018) — UH Hilo alumni Artem Sergeyev is lying in his sleeping bag wearing sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and a hat, with a blanket draped over him. In a small village of only 300 to 600 people, families can’t afford heating. In Sergeyev’s new concrete house, the kitchen, equipped with a wood-burning stove, is the only warm room. He slowly falls asleep, only to wake up the next morning with ice decorating the hair around his nose. This is his winter in North Macedonia, and it is going rougher than he had expected.
Three years ago, Sergeyev was part of an organization called the Peace Corps, which was started in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. The organization sends volunteers overseas to help countries that are struggling with development or are lacking certain resources. Students can join the program right after college, or later in life, and participate in projects related to education, youth development, or medicine. There are over 120 countries that students can sign up to serve in, but most service locations are located in South America, Africa, and Asia. Students sign a contract to serve for two years; the first eight months are spent learning the language and culture of their host country. After those eight months, the student loses their so-called “training wheels.” They can live on their own and plan their own service projects. One of the greatest parts about the Peace Corps is that it’s free. Students don’t have to pay for the amazing experience, and they even receive a stipend for food and living costs. The only costs a student may incur are from medical expenses for getting a physical exam, which is a requirement when applying for the program. Housing is provided, and can be either with a host family or in an apartment. As Sergeyev explained, the most important thing for students to worry about is “focusing on learning the language and doing the job [they] volunteered for.”
Sergeyev graduated from UH Hilo in May 2018, and left for North Macedonia in September of that same year. He lived in the city of Kavadarci and taught English to students in third through ninth grade. During the school year, Sergeyev taught every day, but during the summer he had to find other service work. With the help of other Peace Corps volunteers, he decided to put together a ‘travel camp’ for students from ages 9 to 14. The camp taught students about different countries, including the United States and the Hawaiian Islands. Sergeyev’s favorite memory was when he taught his students about Hawaiʻi island. A friend was visiting him at the time, so she performed and taught the students hula. Sergeyev recalls “watching the girls and boys be very fascinated with learning [hula]” and throughout the lessons about Hawaiʻi.
In March 2020, Sergeyev received a call from the security liaison officer that had trained him when he first joined the Peace Corps. “Pack everything you can fit in one bag and meet me at the airport in six hours.”
Sergeyev was less than an hour’s plane ride from Italy when it shut down during the first COVID-19 wave. He was able to pack one piece of luggage and one backpack, but had to leave everything else behind when he was evacuated from the country. He recalls how nerve racking and scary the situation was as everything went from normal to serious.
Looking back, Sergeyev realizes that he gained much more than what he provided to the community of Kavadarci. “It feels like it was almost unfair that we went and had such a good experience. It feels like I didn’t give back enough.” He realizes how fortunate he is living in Hawaii; having the things he has, and everything he takes for granted. Living in North Macedonia made him thankful for what he has. Sergeyev plans to return to the Peace Corps after he retires, but for now he urges students to join. “It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.” He suggests that students start researching and applying early. The application process takes months to complete, but it is well worth it. “You’ll be able to do something that only a few people have ever done.” There are other benefits when students return, such as scholarships for graduate school, and help with government job opportunities.