The University of Iowa

UI Grad lives through Samoan tsunami

October 29th, 2009

By Kathryn Stinson, The Daily Iowan

The tide now rolls in peacefully along the southwest shores of Leone, Samoa, a stark contrast to the violent waves that sent the island into chaos after a violent tsunami struck early last week.

Recent UI graduate Kelly Berger, who teaches on the South Pacific island, saw the devastating storm and its aftermath.

Leone, where Berger teaches, was hit exceptionally hard, wiping out the lower half completely and killing 11 people.

Three students and a teacher at Midkiff Elementary, the school where Berger teaches fourth grade, were killed.

“At school, they are marked by the absence of their uniforms and school supplies,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Where homes and businesses used to dwell, only cement slabs remain. What was once roofs, washers, and dryers are now only clutter scattered across the tropical landscape, she said.

“I’ve been helping clean up the debris on our days off of school and taking food to families in need,” said Berger, who graduated from the UI in May.

Always interested in international cultures, she knew she wanted to go abroad after graduating from the UI.

As a UI student, Berger was involved with the International Students Ambassadors and Dance Marathon. She also participated in an exchange program her sophomore year, traveling to Durban, South Africa.

Spending a semester at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, she said, she absorbed the complexities of developing countries.

Upon her return to the UI from South Africa, Kelly joined the UI’s International Student Ambassadors program, an initiative formed to provide a welcoming environment for foreign-exchange students, said inter-cultural program assistant Shannon Lizakowski.

“This program gives international students a group to talk to,” Lizakowski said.

International studies was a large part of Berger’s UI experience, pushing her to join WorldTeach, a program run through Harvard’s International Development Program that focuses on sending graduates around the world to teach in developing countries.

Noah Rolff, the Pacific Programs manager for WorldTeach, received Berger’s application and said he was intrigued by her amount of experience.

“This year’s program was unusually competitive based on the amount of applications WorldTeach received,” Rolff said. “Kelly had a really good background.”

Berger’s previous experiences helped prepare her for her experiences abroad, but not for a violent, natural disaster that claimed at least 32 American Samoan lives.

The 32 WorldTeach volunteers went back to work this week, trying to form some sense of normality.

“In a place where people give so much, I would like to rise to the opportunity to help give something back,” Berger said.