When I was 12, I thought that the biggest perk of winning the lottery to get into International Community School was Focus Week: At the end of each year, we spent a week on educational activities outside of the classroom, like fencing, sailing or Habitat for Humanity. As it turned out, there were many other great things about going to an academically challenging school in my home community. ICS had fascinating people like the international studies teacher who told us attention-grabbing stories about culture shock during his time with the Peace Corps in then-Zaire.
But growing up, I had always wanted to travel and Focus Week was an entry into the world when the Peace Corps was a distant idea. My senior year, I saved up for 10 days of ecotourism in Costa Rica. We pulled dangerous weeds from turtle nesting beaches, dug out ponds in the jungle for frog habitat rehabilitation and slept in open-air cabins, ants crawling by our heads. An environmental studies teacher was our enthusiastic chaperon.
I tried to avoid the cockroaches in the showers, the spiderwebs just above eye level and the malarial mosquitoes but there was nothing I could do about an allergic reaction — my first — to food in a home-stay. After an hour-long trip across the swamp to a not-so-sterile clinic, where we discussed my symptoms in Spanish, they gave me an injection in the “caudal region” (posterior) and sent me on my way.
Despite it all, that Focus Week was my favorite experience at ICS. While I prefer getting a full night’s sleep to patrolling for smugglers, I discovered that I don’t need a soft bed, a hot shower or the relative safety of the United States to be happy — a truth that has persisted through experiences like getting lost in Moscow, Russia and catching bronchitis in the Argentine Andes. I would never have known what I could do without those teachers to show me that physical discomfort and financial circumstances don’t matter when I have a sense of purpose.
And so, here I am, a Peace Corps trainee (or aspirante in Spanish) in Quito, Ecuador.
Getting here wasn’t easy. My freshman year of college at Colgate University, I planned my majors (English and social sciences) and my extracurricular activities around being the best possible applicant for an English teaching position. I sent emails to an ICS graduate who was also a Peace Corp volunteer at the time to find out what I could expect in the application process and in the job itself. My first application was still rejected after an interview about a position in Namibia.
Even after my second application was accepted, nothing seemed certain. I was fingerprinted in Seattle and sent in a complete medical history of my life, then waited. And waited.
I visited ICS again and was encouraged one last time by stories from the international studies teacher who inspired me years ago. Wracked with nerves, I wrote about Ecuador on social media and in response, received a video from the environmental studies teacher who led me to Costa Rica my senior year. It was all about how great Ecuador was and my anxiety quickly became pure excitement.
My parents raised me to try anything once, to face challenges as they come, and not to sweat the small stuff. Moving away from home for the next two years isn’t exactly small — and Kirkland will always be home for me. But the Peace Corps is a challenge Kirkland prepared me for.
“From Kirkland to Quito” chronicles Kirkland native Emma Tremblay’s experiences in Quito, Ecuador, where she is a Peace Corps trainee. Tremblay is a 2012 graduate from International Community School and 2016 graduate from Colgate University.