March 25, 2013

Alumni Spotlight: 2012 Graduate Caitie Shea

Former women's lacrosse player living in Cambodia to serve in Peace Corps.

By Kelsey Horton
Special to GoHolyCross.com

This time last year, Caitie Shea was beginning her last lacrosse season as a Crusader. She didn't know it yet, but she was about to have her best personal season and ultimately be selected to the All-Patriot League Tournament team. Shea was a Psychology major in the Pre-Medical program, with aspirations to one day attend Physicians Assistant's school.

One year later, and she is on the complete opposite end of the globe, working in Bos Khnor, Kampong Cham, Cambodia. Shea has made a 27-month long commitment to the Peace Corps, working as a Community Health Advisor.

Recently, Shea talked to GoHolyCross.com to give us a closer look at what it is like to work in a third world country.

GoHolyCross.com: What is your role as Community Health Advisor?

Shea: My purpose is to educate the community where I live and the Health Center staff on appropriate healthcare and healthy lifestyles. For example, I teach the importance of hand washing, tooth brushing, proper diet and exercise etc. along with proper times and ways to go about doing so.

GoHolyCross.com: Did you ever travel out of the U.S. before you went?

Shea: Yes! I have been on family vacations outside of the states, played lacrosse in Ireland and England after my freshman year, and did two volunteer mission trips through Holy Cross. One was through the chaplains' office to Nicaragua and the other was with Medical Ministry International to Honduras. But, all of these trips were only between two and three weeks in length, nothing comparable to living and integrating into a third world culture for two years.

GoHolyCross.com: Do you do any traveling when you are there?

Shea: Of course I have been traveling throughout Cambodia and take any chances I can to visit and learn about all aspects of the country and the culture. There is so much history to learn about that shapes the lives of Cambodians and I am trying to learn and experience all that I can. Some examples are going to Siem Reap Province to see Angkor Wat (temple), one of the historical Seven Wonders of the World, visiting the endangered river dolphins in Kratie Province, going to the killing fields and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum to learn more about the Khmer Rouge Genocide, taking elephant ride jungle treks in Mondulkuri Province and of course visiting the beach in Kampong Saom Province! Also, when I have extended time off I am able to travel to other parts of Southeast Asia and I am actually going on a vacation to Malaysia in April!

GoHolyCross.com: Are there other Americans and/or Peace Corps members there with you?

Shea: In my group that came to Cambodia there were roughly 60 people, half serve as English Teachers and the other half serve as Health Volunteers but I am the only one in my village. In fact, I am the only one for about 20 miles on one side and 35 miles on the other. This definitely has proved to be interesting, I am seen as a celebrity and alien at the same time. Cambodian culture really values light skin and hair, and pointy noses, so I get a lot of attention because I look so different and have a lot of desired features. A lot of people touch my skin because they are curious about how it feels and ask me if I "paint my hair" because it is blonde, unlike their natural black hair tone.

I have now been here for eight months and if for some reason a white traveler comes through my village (which is very, very rare) it is custom for the villagers to gawk and point at the tourist and I now find myself doing the same! I have to step back for a second and realize I am the same as them and they probably speak English! It is an exciting day if a tourist gets lost and ventures through my village, I can speak in English with someone!

GoHolyCross.com: Why did you decide to apply for the Peace Corps? Is this something you always knew you would do?

Shea: I decided to apply for Peace Corps in my junior year at Holy Cross, so no; it was not something I always knew I would do. I always enjoyed volunteer work and had been on a few service trips that really tugged at my heart. Those trips were so short and I realized if I wanted to make a lasting impact somewhere and give back the knowledge and experience I have, I would have to commit to something long term. I also realized this was a perfect time in my life to go on an adventure and try something completely new and scary and see if I could overcome all the obstacles and thrive living in a third world country!

GoHolyCross.com: What was it like getting used to living in a new culture? Do you feel like you have fully adapted yet?

Shea: In the beginning it was definitely a culture shock, it was like going back to being an infant all over again. I had to learn to speak the language, go to the bathroom, bathe, dress properly, eat cultural food, find my way around and socialize in a completely new environment. And this time I wasn't just going to be here for a few weeks with a group of Americans the whole time, I was thrown into a village by myself and had to figure it all out!

Yes, in some regards I feel that I am pretty adapted. Squat toilets, no toilet paper, bucket showers, washing my clothes in a bucket by hand, eating rice every single day for every meal, only speaking in Khmer (Cambodian language), all these tasks are just a normal part of my day. But, in some ways no, being sick in Cambodia is really hard and is something that happens quite often (I've had bacterial infections, giardia, lice, just to name a few) because the water is not sanitary, my village is dirty, and so on. Also, at times I miss things that use to be normal for me, like Western food, something as simple as a bowl of cereal! But if I eat that now (which would be impossible to find), it would make me sick because there are no real dairy products in Cambodia, so all volunteers become slightly lactose intolerant. Or sitting on a couch, some days I just want to sit on a couch but furniture is something that is non-existent besides hammocks (which are actually pretty awesome!). But, these types of cravings come and go and overall I would say I have adapted pretty well!

GoHolyCross.com: What is the hardest part about living there? What is the best?

Shea: The hardest part about living here for me is probably the pretty typical answer; I miss my family and friends. Although two years in the scheme of things is a rather short period of time, at times it can seem very long. Also, just knowing that I am completely across the globe doesn't help either. I am about a two-day trip away from America! But, I am very fortunate that my family and a few friends are making the trek to visit, which of course is going to be wonderful!

The best part about living in Cambodia for me is my host family. They have taken me in as another member of the family and treat me no differently then they would any other family member. My host mother cares for me when I'm sick, I go to all sorts of family events, my family members tell me they love me, and I even have chores around the house! It is an amazing way to integrate into a culture. I have learned so much from them and know I will continue to learn throughout my whole journey here!

GoHolyCross.com: What are your living conditions like? How is it having a host family?

Shea: My living conditions are reasonable and I've actually grown very fond of my house. Nonetheless it is still Cambodia. I have a non-flush toilet and no toilet paper, bucket shower, my family cooks outside over an open fire, we sit on top of basically a big wooden table with your legs in a certain manner to not disgrace the head of the house, and I ride my bicycle everywhere I go because I have no other mode of transportation. I am actually pretty lucky that my house has decent electricity; it doesn't work roughly 3-4 hours a day, on three random days of the week! So I have it pretty good!

Having a host family for me is one of the most rewarding aspects of my experience. Although in the beginning it is odd being thrust into a strange, new family, they quickly become part your family. I consider them my second family and even call my host mother, Mom (in Khmer of course!).

GoHolyCross.com: Tell me about what you are doing over there. What is a typical day like?

Shea: A typical day for me is waking up around 6:30 a.m. to the roosters crowing, dogs barking and everything else that is already going on because my host family wakes up when the sun comes up, I am fortunate I get to "sleep in." I walk to the market and sit at one of the stalls and eat breakfast or buy a piece of fruit. I work at the Health Center from 8:00a.m.-11:00a.m. with the midwives, helping to give pregnant women prenatal exams and I also get to be present at the births. Some mornings I work in the pharmacy. After the Health Center closes up I usually grab a coffee (Cambodian coffee, not the same as America!) with some Health Center staff members or some villagers before heading home to eat lunch with my family. After lunch is rest time and everyone naps, but I usually take the time to do some prep work before my afternoon. I have an art club, teach English and exercise classes at two primary schools and an orphanage. Then in the evening I usually go on a run (where I constantly get stopped and asked why I am running, it is not something Cambodians do) and then spend time with my family cooking dinner, eating dinner and cleaning up! Then we all retire inside the house to play cards or color before I head to bed, when I usually read or sneak in a TV show on my computer!

GoHolyCross.com: What are a few of your favorite memories you have made so far?

Shea: One of my favorite memories is when I went away for a weekend and my host mom ran to me and hugged me (not a commonality in Cambodia!) and told me she missed me so much! It was a nice moment because I really realized I was truly a part of their family.

Another memory is a time I fell off my bike into a pile of mud in the rainy season. I was literally covered in mud from head to toe and my bike was a mess as well. I attracted a lot of kids on my way home because I looked so funny and before they laughed, they were very concerned if I was okay or not. When I told them I was fine, they accompanied me to the well in my backyard and "helped me" by dumping buckets of water and wiping my bike and me down. It turned into a big water fight!

GoHolyCross.com: Did anyone give you any helpful advice before you left?

Shea: Yes, one of my good friends from Holy Cross really put things into perspective for me! She told me I had to be brave and even if things feel scary and lonely and not worth anything, fight for yourself and know you're not alone, you'll have all your family and friends with you in their hearts and minds. "Your braver then you believe, stronger then you seem and smarter then you think" always.  You are making a difference by getting on that plane. Never doubt what you are giving to the world by doing this. "There are so many people that will tell you no, what you've got to do is turn around and say watch me." I try to live by this everyday I am here!

GoHolyCross.com:  Is there anything that you learned at Holy Cross that has helped you in Cambodia?

Shea: Holy Cross has taught me a lot, but one of the biggest traits my schoolwork and time spent on the lacrosse field have taught me is determination. I have learned if you put in the work and energy, and fight to conquer any set back that comes your way, you will succeed. Cambodia can be frustrating at times, the pace of life is slower and people don't show up when they say they will and projects fail. But, if you keep pushing and keep trying and never give up, things fall into place and you begin to see success. And when things do fail, it makes the successes that much sweeter!

Go here to view the photo gallery.

If you would like to follow Shea's amazing experience, you can read her blog here:  http://cshea13.wordpress.com/