On a sweltering Liberian day, Alaska Pacific University alum Katy Lovegreen Bishoff received a long-awaited package.
From a parcel with a return label marked “Anchorage, Alaska” she pulled out something she’d been anticipating since starting her two-year teaching commitment with the Peace Corps: the picture book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.”
At the time Katy and her husband Josh Bishoff, another APU alum and Peace Corp volunteer, were living with a host family. As soon as training was complete, Katy raced home to tell her host sister what she had received.
“She was in the middle of washing dishes, but immediately dropped what she was doing, her face completely lit up, and she came running up to the porch so we could read together,” Katy said.
As Katy explained, books are a rarity in Liberia, even in schools. So anytime children encounter one it’s a novel thing.
Over a year into her teaching contract, Katy says that day remains one of her favorite memories of her time in Liberia.
Realizing a dream together
The duo met at Alaska Pacific University in the fall of 2007. Katy was a freshman and Josh had just returned from a brief hiatus to start his junior year.
“We were both living in the dorms and with how small the on-campus population is, it’s pretty impossible not to know everyone,” Katy said. “Our first date was at a friend’s concert in the laundry room of Atwood.”
Early on in their relationship, Josh mentioned a desire to serve in the Peace Corps, and the two decided that they’d do so together.
“That was about 10 years ago, so being here is the realization of a long time dream,” Katy said, adding, “For me, the motivation to join was mainly because I wanted to experience something that would challenge me on many levels, allow me to help others, and make me a better global citizen. Volunteers will often tell you that they get far more from their service than they could ever give and I’ve found that to be very true of my experience.”
While at APU, Josh studied environmental science. After graduating, he worked as a substitute teacher, managed a gold mine, analyzed water quality samples as a lab tech, was a hydrological and biological tech with USGS and managed the occasional masonry projects. Katy, on the other hand, taught in Anchorage and then Girdwood, Alaska.
Katy believes their time at APU prepared them for Liberia.
“Besides having given me a variety of practicum experience to help me be more adaptable to different classroom situations, I think APU generally fosters an attitude of seeking adventure and not shying away from something that is a challenge,” Katy said. “I’m honestly surprised that we don’t have more alumnae who are Peace Corps Volunteers because it seems like such a natural fit.”
Finding community 7,000 miles from home
Currently, Josh and Katy live in Bomi County, Liberia. When they applied to join the Peace Corp, they had a harder time finding positions that allowed them to serve in different sectors, like agriculture and health, so they had to comprise a bit in their choices.
Liberia was one of the few locations that offered to teach positions specifically in secondary math and science, which best spoke to each of their APU degrees.
Here, Katy does work primarily teaching phonics to K-6th graders, but also helps with gym and science classes, and organizes a weekly after-school girls club that visits nearby orphanages to do read aloud.
Josh uses his science degree to teach 10th and 11th-grade physics. In his spare time, he maintains a side project helping local cassava farmer form a cooperative that allows them to bring their harvest to be processed into other products. It will enable the farmers to earn a higher wage than selling raw tubers and grants them use of factory equipment to make the process less labor intensive. Through a grant, he helped them to expand their processing facility and hold training for the members. The hope is to provide a source of financial stability for families in the area.
Liberian culture, Katy said, is very different from what she experienced growing up in Alaska, or Josh’s upbringing in rural Kansas.
Their town is the largest in their district but claims less than 100 people. The most common method of travel is walking; they have students who walk for an hour or two each direction to get to school. Their house is made of concrete with a corrugated tin roof. However, many of their neighbors have mud brick construction. Water is retrieved from a hand pump well, clothes are washed by hand, and they alternate between cooking meals on a gas stove and in a coal pot.
“Most of our time is spent on our back porch, because it’s shady for the majority of the day, whereas inside the house is hot,” Katy said. “ It’s typical for Liberians. A house is a place to sleep and store things, but the day is spent outside on the porch, in the outdoor kitchen, or on the farm.”
Katy noted that Liberian culture is exceptionally communal. If you’re eating and a friend is walking by, it is expected that you invite them to join. If a family member has a well-paying job, they are expected to support other family members.
“This is reflected in how they refer to family members; it is rare to hear the terms cousin, niece, or nephew because Liberians typically refer to these relations as brother, sisters, daughter, or son,” Katy said.
Liberians attitude towards time differs significantly from Western culture — plans are likely to start an hour or two after they were scheduled.
“Here, it’s more generally accepted that things sometimes don’t go as planned and life gets in the way,” Katy said.
Even in teaching, a realm both knew well before transitioning to Liberia, the differences encountered in the classroom are staggering.
Beyond language barriers, bulging class rosters, and lack of teacher technology, they also contend with having a wide age range in a single grade. In the U.S. there’s a traditional age when most students start school, but Katy said, that’s not something as ingrained in Liberian culture, so it’s not uncommon to have eight-year-olds registering for kindergarten. Josh has 10th and 11th graders range from 18- to 25-years-old and Katy’s 6th graders are between 14- and 19-years-old. Both have many students who are already parents.
“This is quite different from the homogeneous 6-year-old first graders I had at home,”
Katy said. “But having had experience in K-8 with my practicum hours at APU, it’s nothing I wasn’t prepared for.”
Some of the best advice Katy received before accepting the position was to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
“Peace Corps service is all about being flexible,” Katy said. “There are a lot of times that something will feel awkward or you will not feel confident with something you’re trying to do, but in the end, the personal growth that you experience as a result of those situations is incredible.”
Things often don’t go as planned and the best way they’ve found to make the most of their time is to keep pushing and seeking out opportunities for side projects.
“Perhaps this is another quality that APU fosters; an independent learner who has been active in steering their education is more likely to go out and find ways to keep busy and be active in their community,” Katy said.
Josh and Katy plan to stay in Liberia through July 2019. Upon their return to Alaska, Katy will resume her position with the Anchorage School District and Josh will explore new options that marry his APU degree with work he’s come to love doing in Africa.
“He’s found a passion through his time with the co-op for working with community groups to create sustainable development for nutritional and financial stability,” Katy explained. “He’s considering looking for similar opportunities when we come home to Alaska.”