Profile: Suan Hanson
I was born in Korea and adopted in the United States, specifically Fargo, North Dakota, when I was a year old and grew up there. I studied abroad in India for my junior semester in college, and I think that is what got me interested in joining the Peace Corps. That I had studied abroad in a developing country probably made me more interested in wanting to pursue other developing countries through the Peace Corps.
Although my parents were not initially happy about my decision to join the Peace Corps, they were supportive, and by the end, they were extremely proud and boastful. I come from a pretty big family—five brothers and a sister, all older. Three of my brothers didn’t understand my wanting to join the Peace Corps. They didn’t think it was a good idea because of money and other issues. My other brothers were very supportive and very happy, though. One brother even liked to brag about it.
I knew I wanted to join the Peace Corps when I got back from studying abroad, so I actually went to my recruiter to find out what I needed to do to be more competitive. I took on two summer jobs to strengthen my chances of getting accepted into one of two programs. I did gardening in the summer, and in the evening I worked with at-risk youth. I ended up being placed in a youth development program.
I served in São Tomé and Príncipe until the Peace Corps suspended the program. We were given the choice to go home in a “non-disciplinary administrative separation” or continue in another program. I wanted to continue, so I was transferred to Namibia and finished my service there.
My initial impression was a little bit tainted by the fact that I had spent some time in Central Africa. When I arrived in the capital, I thought, “This is not a great place.” It was very modern, very fast-paced, and not what I wanted for my Peace Corps experience. And then I got placed in a rural community.
I served in the most gorgeous place—a savanna type of area, very Serengeti-like. One of the best parts of my experience was seeing all of the wildlife, but what I value most are the confidence I got from my accomplishments and just making friendships.
Being a member of a minority created challenges, but some of the challenges you have to face prove to be some of the proudest moments you have. Having been Asian in a predominantly white community growing up, it was not too difficult for me to be a minority in the Peace Corps. What was different was having to know who I was and be able to explain that to people. In Namibia and other parts of Africa, they don’t always understand that Americans are very diverse and that we don’t all—fortunately—resemble the characters on Baywatch or 90210, that some of us are actually hardworking.
I felt I succeeded in getting the picture across that Americans are very diverse. It is a great moment when your host country national friends correct other people. One time we were in one of the villages and someone asked, “Who’s that woman helping to change the tire—is she Chinese?” I could hear my counterpart answer, “Oh no, she’s not. She’s an American. She’s my Peace Corps Volunteer.”
I would advise minorities to utilize the supports that are out there in the decision-making process. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are more than happy to talk to people about the challenges and rewards of being a person of color overseas. It is something you may not want to admit is going to be an issue. But it doesn’t make you a weak person to get more information; it just makes you a more informed person.
My plans for the future are always changing. The Peace Corps got me involved in public health issues such as tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS education. Before the Peace Corps, I never thought I’d be doing that, but I am still interested in those issues.
The Peace Corps experience is about the people you met, the things you did, and the experiences you had, but it’s also about rising to the challenge. It’s about knowing that I lasted through two years of service and three months of training—that I persevered and rose to the occasion.
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