Lenoir native heads to Ethiopia with Peace Corps

Jun. 28, 2013 @ 08:01 PM

It’s not that Janice Tse isn’t used to being something of a fish out of water.  

For Tse, a Lenoir native and recent UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, being uncomfortable is the whole point. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Tse attended Hibriten High School, went on to major in Asian studies at Carolina and studied abroad in China. It’s important to her to throw the door open to other cultures, she said – to get out of her comfort zone.

Still, none of her experiences so far quite measure up to what Tse is taking on next: living and working in Ethiopia for two years as a member of the Peace Corps.

Tse leaves for Ethiopia on July 1. She’ll spend three months living with a host family before being assigned to a community in Ethiopia, where she’ll spend two years as an education volunteer. She’ll be trained in three languages: Amharic, Oromifa and Tigrinya.

As Tse sifted through her post-graduate options, the Peace Corps seemed like a natural choice. It fit perfectly with her tendency to stretch herself, to willingly be the odd one out.

“I knew I wanted to go abroad,” Tse said. “And the Peace Corps seemed like a great option, because it would definitely put me out of my comfort zone.”

In the Peace Corps, you don’t get to choose where you serve. After her application was accepted, Tse waited to find out where she’d be sent. She knew she wasn’t likely to end up with an assignment that meshed with the languages she already speaks (Tse is proficient in Chinese and speaks Cantonese at home).

So she waited, thinking she might be assigned to South or Central America.

And then the assignment came: Africa. At first, that’s all the information she was given. The news that she’d be living in Ethiopia came later.

“When I did find out it was Ethiopia, I was like -- oh,” Tse said. “Africa’s definitely one of the last places I thought about going.”

Through her service in the Peace Corps, Tse hopes to make some progress toward narrowing the “education gap” that some say makes opportunities harder to reach for students in the developing world. The problem is particularly acute in rural China, but it happens everywhere along the lines between urban and rural, rich and poor.

Tse’s study-abroad took place at a major Chinese university, but when she ventured into small towns and provinces she realized how serious the disparity was.

“Those that live in the cities have so many opportunities,” she said. “The education is so much better.”

And Tse, too, is looking forward to being uncomfortable. In Ethiopia, electricity is spotty, and power outages are common, she said. Internet service is rare except in the big cities – and big cities are not the typical terrain of Peace Corps volunteers.  

Tse has prepared by communicating with Peace Corps veterans – reading blogs they’ve written, and talking directly with a few. They’ve told her what she should and shouldn’t bring, and told a few cautionary tales about fleas and eight-hour bus rides.

All of it is exactly what Tse signed up for – bugs, spotty power and all.

“It’s all to be expected when you go to another country,” Tse said. “You’re going to be out of your comfort zone. You’re going to be uncomfortable.”