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November Monthly Spotlight: Nik Karr

November Spotlight: Nik Karr

Please meet our monthly spotlight, Nik Karr! Nik is the current Director of Programming and Training (DPT) for Peace Corps Tonga and has served in this position since September of 2017. Prior to his time in Tonga, Nik was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) and worked on another Pacific Island: Vanuatu. All told, he has worked for the Peace Corps, including his time as a Volunteer, for over twelve years, which is the majority of his professional career. Ironically, prior to college, he had never heard of the Peace Corps.

Nik hails from Oregon and earned his B.S. in Education at Western Oregon University. During his junior year of university, one of his older classmates started talking about the Master’s International program, which was a former program that allowed PCVs to earn their master’s degree, while serving in the Peace Corps. This intrigued Nik and he began to explore the Peace Corps and the Master’s International Program and applied to both programs. He ultimately was accepted by both the School Public Health at Boston University and the Peace Corps.

After deferring service for a year, he was invited to serve in Vanuatu. In September 2010, he landed in Vanuatu and was placed for two years on the very outer island of Maewo. To get to his placement, Nik had to take two planes from the capital island and then have to drive an hour to the last community on the road and then hike 3 hours across the island to his village. He was out there, to say the least. He served as a health volunteer for his first two years focusing on Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (W.A.S.H.) services and sexual reproductive health. He worked at the health dispensary. He served his third year on the capital island with the provincial health office. He loved his time in Vanuatu and was not ready to leave. With the encouragement of the Country Director he applied to work for Peace Corps Vanuatu. In 2013, he closed his service as a Volunteer and began working for the Peace Corps as the newly minted Host Family Coordinator, Training assistant, and Volunteer Connect. He was able to work for Peace Corps Vanuatu for 2 additional years and during his last 8 months he served as the acting DPT. This role gave him the opportunity to try many different positions and diversify his experience. 

In 2015, he started working at Peace Corps HQ in the Office of Global Operations before being shipped out to Tonga as the DPT in 2017. He feels incredibly fortunate by the many different experiences he has had and feels like his time as volunteer, in-country employee, and headquarters employee gave him the breadth to consider different perspectives and understand how the agency operates. This experience has paid off; since his time as the DPT in Tonga, he has helped operate Peace Corps Tonga through Cyclone Gita, the Covid-19 evacuations, and the Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai eruption and tsunami! The next year will see Peace Corps Volunteers returning for the first time in 3 years and he will be spearheading the training for the new group of volunteers. 

His time in Vanuatu also prepared him to respond to major weather events. During his time in Vanuatu, he experienced Cyclone Pam, which devastated Vanuatu. With that experience, he knew what to expect during the weather event and immediately afterwards, which helped him prepare for both Cyclone Gita and the volcanic eruption in early 2022. 

When asked what it was like to experience these types of severe weather events, he recalls vividly the immediate aftermath and how communities rise to the moment to respond. He recalled, “Immediately after Cyclone Pam, the sky was incredibly dark and everything was brown, there was no green anywhere because the leaves were swept bare. That was the one good thing after [Cyclone] Gita, there was still green. But then there were just roving groups of teenagers with machetes, going to work removing branches and debris and just cleaning up. There is no guidance, everyone just does what they have to get this done. From a formal military response to just local community members doing what they have to do to protect their communities….incredible heroic acts that won’t be in the news, but are done to make sure everyone is safe.” 

In regards to the Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai volcanic eruption and tsunami, it was Nik’s guidance and leadership that allowed Friends of Tonga to connect with partners and community-led initiatives to be the first nonprofit to fund disaster relief in the wake of that disaster. Specifically, FoT was able to fund the Civil Society Forum of Tonga and MORDI Tonga Trust within the first couple of weeks following the disaster. 

Nik has lived in the South Pacific for over ten years, in multiple countries and in a variety of capacities. Being a volunteer in Vanuatu was vastly different from working in an official capacity for the Peace Corps in the Kingdom of Tonga. That being said, each experience has allowed him to appreciate the similarities across Pacific cultures, while honoring the uniqueness and cultural complexity of each of the places he has lived. Naturally, many variables overlay how he thinks about his time in the Pacific: age, experience, job, location, and so on, yet, he has enjoyed and loved every moment of it. When asked to compare and contrast his experiences, he responded, “Honestly this question seems like it would be easy on an objective level, but it’s always difficult to answer because I lived in both countries at very different times in my life. I’ve enjoyed looking more at the similarities. I think there is always more to learn from these intercultural experiences and a lot to learn from Tongan culture just as there was always more to learn from the ni-Vanuatu culture.”

His time in Tonga will be drawing down at the end of 2023, but he will always be looking for ways to support Pacific communities and advocate for them–including through Friends of Tonga.