Faces of UMSI: Jaklyn Nunga
Jaklyn Nunga, a Peace Corps volunteer, has returned after spending more than two years growing a community in Ecuador.
MSI student Jaklyn Nunga decided to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer after an inspiring tour of Southeast Asia. Now, she’s returned from more than two years in Ecuador, where she cultivated community health, synergy among local entities — and her own green thumb.
Jaklyn grew up in California raised by parents from the Philippines. From a young age, her parents were upfront about life’s inequities and encouraged her to be socially conscious and take action where she could.
After graduating with a bachelor’s in anthropology and digital humanities from UCLA in 2014, she embarked on a six-month tour of Southeast Asia.
While in the Philippines, Jaklyn attended a social entrepreneurship summit focused on teaching participants how to work with locals. It centered around fair work, fair practices and teaching business owners the value of hiring members of their own community.
“That was just another seed for me,” said Jaklyn. “I thought that I would love to come back and work in a setting like this and truly work with and for a community.”
She knew the next step in her life would mean changing jobs or going back to school.
Jaklyn explored a few master’s programs and was drawn to U-M because of its strong Peace Corps affiliations.
Jaklyn enrolled in U-M’s Peace Corps Master’s International (PCMI) program, which combined the skills and subject knowledge of graduate studies with the action of service through the Peace Corps. (The PCMI program was ended in 2016.)
As a PCMI student, Jaklyn attended class for two terms, completed 27 months of Peace Corps service, and is now finishing her master’s degree with two more terms at U-M.
Jaklyn spent her first year as an MSI student taking a combination of tech-heavy curricular classes as well as classes she felt would set her up to go into her Peace Corps service with a rounded approach, like a course focused on accessibility.
After a year of coursework, preparation and Spanish practice, Jaklyn was thrilled to fly off to the Ecuadorian capital of Quito for two months of training.
“But the cool part is when you actually know where you’re going to live,” Jaklyn said.
She was assigned to Progreso, a small town on the coast of Ecuador about an hour away from Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil.
“I was assigned to a health clinic run by the Ministry of Health of Ecuador. It was a little building with three rooms that could be doctor's offices, one vaccination area and even a little dental office.”
Finally on the ground in Progreso, Jaklyn spent the first few months of her service getting the lay of the land and building relationships in and out of the clinic.
“Mostly it was a time to really try to get to know how things are working and where I possibly could fit into it,” she said.
“Developing little connections, whether it's someone you usually smile at when you're walking by — you don't necessarily need a conversation,” she said. “Those little things helped build my sense of inclusion and comfort.”
Once she got more comfortable in Progreso, Jaklyn shifted to more project-oriented work at the clinic. After heading a sexual education program at a local high school, Jaklyn came across an unexpected community development opportunity.
“One thing I observed was a canal running across the town that had really stagnant water, people would throw their trash in,” Jaklyn said.
After pairing with some local entities, Jaklyn broke ground on a project to turn a large area filled with trash and shrubs behind the health clinic into a community garden.
“We got it cleared and then we were able to go into the community ... and about 25 women participated in this activity where they basically grew different vegetables and herbs,” Jaklyn said.
“Part of the idea was that they would grow their own food, but in the end it was really more of a social space too.”
As the area’s rainy season came a few months later, the garden unfortunately overgrew and its regular visitors stopped coming. But Jaklyn knew it still held potential as a place of gathering and growth.
“I was really trying to bring as many stakeholders into that community garden just saying, ‘Look, this is built basically, it just needs maintenance.’
“There are a lot of little groups and organizations working in the community, but they're very dispersed and working on their own. One of the things I recognize is trying to bring all different efforts together that work for the same cause.”
Local police got Jaklyn involved with boys who had been living at a covert, unauthorized drug rehabilitation center in town in poor conditions.
“Eventually we had this little system where the police would drive the boys over to the community garden and they were working with an intention to revitalize it,” she said.
Jaklyn extended her service by a few months in order to work through a program with the boys that reflected on their experiences with drug addiction as they brought the garden back to life.
As she returns to her life and studies at UMSI, Jaklyn is proud of the iterations the garden went through that provided positive focus and support for people in Progreso.
“It served as a signal that there was some kind of community effort,” she said.
“Even though someone might not actively go there, the intention was eventually, hopefully it would be a point of reference … That was a big thing, we wanted people to be proud of it, because I think being proud of something that's part of your community leads more people to want to maintain it.”
Jaklyn is planning to graduate with her MSI degree in the fall of 2020 and, based on her experiences in Ecuador, is considering working with evaluative UX design in policy or education.