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Home  > Insider profile
Deb Helsing

"A defining moment for me was teaching in Tonga through the Peace Corps."

What have been the most defining moments along your career path?

A defining moment for me was teaching in Tonga through the Peace Corps.

How did you get your big breaks?

I went back to school to get my masters so I could be certified to teach. I attended a recruiting fair looking for a job at school and went to Peace Corps booth because there wasn't really a line. I thought the Peace Corps was only in remote parts of Africa and third world countries, but representative talked about opportunities in Eastern Europe which sparked my interest. Typically, about 1 in 6 people who apply are accepted. I had one interview in person with local recruiters, and then had a phone interview which was more formal. They seemed more interested in my attitude about things than skills and experience. Asked "What experience have you had with different cultures?". I had to have a medical evaluation and dental evaluation. There were many deadlines, which is why many people drop out. But I figured I had been applying for teaching jobs which was proving just as difficult, so I hung in there. The longer the process went on, the more convinced I was that Peace Corps was what I wanted to do. I ended up going to South Pacific, to Tonga, with a vague job description. Usually, job descriptions are more structured. I went with a group of 16 Americans.

What was the best advice you received when you were first starting out in your career?

It's hard to be prepared for the mental, psychological and cultural challenges. The physical challenges you expect and are easier to take, such as no hot water in the tap, washing laundry by hand, etc. Even though I tried to go into it as more of a 'cultural experience' it was still difficult; at the end of six months I was a mess with culture shock. I would wake up and think 'what am I doing here? But then I would think, 'what am I doing anywhere?' It's a process of redefining yourself. Another bit of advice was to be honest with yourself, even if it is unpleasant. Think about what you're doing. Some volunteers really didn't think about their behavior and its consequences. Drinking, only socializing with Americans, sleeping with Tongans. Making bad decisions is an easy way to feel better in an uncomfortable situation. Be willing to really take a look at yourself.

What have you learned from your experience?

I feel more confident, secure, and comfortable with myself. I had to think about 'how Tongan do I want to be vs. how much myself?' In Tonga, you are allowed to lie in certain situations. It changed the way I thought about myself. It made me think that maybe things that I thought were so important were not. Even things that were hard, I am now grateful for. It feels like your confronting challenges in life.

What most excites you about your job right now?

Training teachers to teach ESL to the locals. It's a consultant role. There are no books or other teacher aids. I only worked when teachers are teaching English, so that's about one period a day.

What would you like to have achieved by the last day of your career?

When I came home, I found a job teaching in a high school. Everything seemed so easy!

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