From Tonga with Love: Alumna completes Peace Corps service, returns for licensure

Bernadette Chatman
Bernadette Chatman

During the fall semester of 2015, Bernadette Chatman served as a Northern Lights Ambassador for the NIU College of Education.

What, she was asked for a web profile, were her ambitions?

The sophomore Special Education major in the Department of Special and Early Education detailed two “ultimate goals in life: the first, to stay content, and the second, to inspire someone to be a better them.”

Both opportunities awaited her in Tonga, where following her graduation in 2017 she began a two-and-a-half-year stint in the Peace Corps.

First, however, she found the courage to act on her dreams after a study abroad trip to Tanzania recommended by Department of Curriculum and Instruction professor James Cohen.

“I’ve always wanted to join the Peace Corps,” says Chatman, who returned to NIU last semester as a student-at-large in pursuit of her teacher licensure, “and I thought that if I could study abroad, I could do the Peace Corps. I’ve always had a love for service and for traveling around the world, so it was really cool to be able to do both.”

Peace Corps service helped her to grow. “I learned a lot about the world itself and about myself,” she says. “You have a lot of time to analyze yourself and to take good look at yourself. What do I love about myself? How can I improve?”

Chatman’s primary service in Tonga focused on teaching English to children in elementary school, where she also presented professional development to the staff by promoting student-centered learning.

Meanwhile, she helped to build six water tanks for her village that now provide accessible, clean water.

Bernadette Chatman teachers in Tonga (Peace Corps photo).
Bernadette Chatman teachers in Tonga (Peace Corps photo).

Yet her favorite memories of Tonga lie outside those two main projects.

With the Tupou Tertiary Institute, a college with which Peace Corps Tonga partners, Chatman assisted in the creation of illustrated English-language sight word books “so that the Tongan students could see themselves in English literacy.”

That project included the recruitment, management and payment of local artists to draw pictures for the books.

With the Special Education Department of the Ministry of Education and Training, she helped to develop alphabet flash cards for students with sensory issues and delivered professional development for teachers.

“Another volunteer and I would discuss what strategies we thought would work best for their students to help them learn,” Chatman says. “We helped them administer exams.”

For two years, she served as program coordinator of the all-girl Camp GLOW (Girls Lead Our World).

“We created programs for the girls and collaborated with local organizations on those,” she says. “I taught them how to become leaders in their families, their communities and the world. We talked about general health and hygiene, self-love and self-care. We talked about domestic violence. We created mentor groups where we collaborated with other organizations and powerful women.”

Now working as a paraprofessional and co-teacher at the Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy on the west side of Chicago, Chatman is “getting my footing back with special education in the states.”

Bernadette Chatman and members of her Tongan “family.”
Bernadette Chatman and members of her Tongan “family.”

Teaching students with special needs is a career she chose at a young age.

“When I moved to the suburbs – I think it was in third grade – there was a student I was really close to, and I didn’t realize he had autism. When I did find out he had a special need, and why people were picking on him, it bothered me,” she says. “I thought that I would help students with autism or Down syndrome or learning disabilities to encourage them so they wouldn’t have to worry about being bullied or be bullied less.”

Chatman discovered years later that she also had a learning disability growing up.

“I like how my mom handled everything. She pushed me. She helped me learn some of the subjects in different ways,” she says. “It encouraged me to give what I was given.”

Her gifts to pay forward now include the ones she received in Tonga.

“My biggest reward was just the children, just creating positive relationships with those kids and members of the community, which I now consider family, and just seeing how they changed over the years,” she says.

“It was beautiful, seeing them believe in themselves and not, ‘Because I don’t have what kids in America or kids in New Zealand or Australia have doesn’t mean I can’t be great.’ They realize that they can be great – or even greater,” she adds. “The kids are amazing.”

Everything in Tongan culture is “about community. It’s about love, and about helping each other, and it’s the smallest things that matter,” Chatman says.

“I’ll never forget that on my birthday, I came out of my house and all the kids were chanting my name in Tongan. I’ve never received love like that from students, ever,” she says. “It was the sweetest thing, and I hope I can bring that home and bring that to my job here with my kids.”

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