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Peace Corps experience 'game changer' for former sports reporter
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Chhun Sun, near center with a red and blue checkered shirt, stands with fellow Peace Corps volunteers, his co-teacher and students after an English summer fun camp at his small village school in Azerbaijan. - photo by Photo Contributed

Why did I join the Peace Corps?

I wanted to live and work in a country and culture outside of my own.

That's the politically correct response.

The real answer: Because of a girl.

Isn't it funny how some of life's biggest decisions relates to a special someone?

Well, let me kill the mood. This particular person was never my girlfriend, but she was someone I truly cared about. She told me to do something important. I met her as I was making the leap from Modesto Junior College to Fresno State, where she was studying psychology, in late December 2004. We quickly became buddies. I learned that she wanted to change the world, and one of her biggest life goals was to sign up for something called Peace Corps. Back then, I had no idea what that was.

Fast forward to 2007, when I was working for The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah. In a mass email, another friend noted that he was heading to Cambodia, where my parents were born and raised on the farmlands before they were captured by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1975 and worked as slaves for four years. "How did my friend end up there?" I remember thinking. It turned out that Peace Corps helped him get there.

When I wasn't reporting on sports for my first professional journalism job, I was researching about the Peace Corps. The government agency, which started in 1961 during President Kennedy's tenure, was everything I was looking for after college. It offered an opportunity to live and work overseas, something that seemed impossible after being raised by strict immigrant parents who left their war-torn country to find better opportunities in America. It offered benefits such as full medical coverage and student loan deferments, things that were difficult to pass up for a recent college graduate. And it offered a paid, structured adventure that I figured could impress my future grandchildren one day. Or someone at the bar.

At that time, life in America for me wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. I just didn't like it. I can't fully explain what it was that bugged me. I had a lot of blessings. I had jobs and a reliable car. I had a supportive family and friends I hung out with during the weekends. But I just didn't feel, you know, complete. I wanted more. Maybe it was a quarterlife crisis.

It took me four years to get into Peace Corps. I quit my job in Utah and moved back to Modesto to live with my grandma during her final three months. I began working for the Turlock Journal and stayed for three years, all while thinking about and working toward Peace Corps. Then, I landed a full-time job at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo, where I finally managed to complete the medical portion of the Peace Corps application.

In late May 2012, I got accepted into Peace Corps. Four months later, I was off to Azerbaijan to be a first-time English teacher. And I'm so glad to be here. Peace Corps continues to be the best life decision I've ever made — though it hasn't been perfect, with the toughest part being the special unwanted attention I sometimes receive for being an American minority of Asian descent in a country that has had limited interactions with diversity, to the point of receiving such verbal harassment as being called Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan to having teenagers speak to me in what they think is a Chinese language in hopes of garnering laughter from their friends.

I'm evolving every day in a small village near the Georgian border, thanks to my host mom, my students and co-teacher, the shopkeeper who sneaks an extra orange into my shopping bag because she wants to thank me for teaching her daughter and the people who greet me on the dirt roads we share with cows, buffaloes, horses, chickens, turkeys, geese and ducks. The Azerbaijani word for "teacher" is also used for a respectable figure, so being an actual teacher is a game changer.

In other words, this experience will forever change me.

At the same time, this experience isn't for everyone. I'm not here to advocate for Peace Corps. You can find fulfillment by helping out at the homeless shelter or doing everyday things with the people you love. I'm just telling you about how a girl changed my life.

Editor's note: Chhun Sun is a Peace Corps volunteer who teaches English at a small village school in Azerbaijan. A former sports reporter for the Journal, Sun began his 27-month service in September 2012.