In 2010, I had the honor of receiving a ten-month research grant to study the lives of I-Kiribati living in New Zealand. The I-Kiribati are citizens from the Republic of Kiribati, a small Micronesian country located in the Central Pacific Ocean. Their islands, consisting mostly of low-lying coral atolls, rise just inches above sea level, and are under severe threat from higher tides and stronger storms. The purpose of my study was to gain an understanding of migrant experiences in New Zealand, in preparation for possible large-scale relocation due to climate change.
I first went to Kiribati as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2000 and was “adopted” by an amazing host family. In 2005, some members of this family moved to New Zealand. There, they lived amongst a large community of I-Kiribati migrants. I lived with my family throughout my Fulbright year and gained an intimate view of their lives in New Zealand. I experienced their joys, sorrows, and challenges on a very personal level. They were not the only ones facing challenges though. Back in Kiribati, our friends and family were struggling with surmounting impacts from climate change.
At the end of my Fulbright year, I returned to Kiribati to see the rest of the family. The situation had become much worse since I was there, just two years prior. Remnants of fallen seawalls were everywhere, causing more people to live on smaller plots of land. Despite worsening conditions, many refused to even think about migrating to another country. Highlighting the connection to land in Kiribati, elders and youth stated their allegiance to their land, “We would rather die in our land than in someone else’s.” The connection to Kiribati land is so strong that even those in New Zealand felt an obligation to return to their ancestral lands for their final breath.
My Fulbright experience further exposed me to the very real worries, fears, losses, and the hopes of those living on the frontline of climate change. My connections to and empathy for the I-Kiribati grew stronger throughout my time there, and inspired me to do more to help Kiribati share its story.
In partnership with other I-Kiribati friends, I began a social media campaign to spread the word about Kiribati. Since 2015, Humans of Kiribati has gained attention from international media outlets, local journalists, movie producers, radio talk show hosts, foreign governments, and everyday people from all over the world.
Kiribati became my second home through Peace Corps, and with the help of Fulbright, has turned into a vocation. If you are thinking about applying to Fulbright, I say do it! You will not be the same when you return, and that is a good thing! Our world now needs more globally-minded citizens than ever before.