Michael Hassett and Chiara Collette first met each other in 2014 at the Los Angeles International Airport before boarding a 17-hour flight to the Kingdom of Tonga in the middle of the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Hassett applied to the Peace Corps hoping to be placed in Eastern Europe focusing on rural development. As a certified teacher, Collette didn’t have a specific country in mind. She was more interested in being able to teach.
Both were placed in Tonga in teaching positions. Little did they know that this shared placement would permanently intertwine their personal and professional lives. In 2018, the couple got married and co-founded an internationally recognized nonprofit, Friends of Tonga—which earned a 2021 Literacy Award from the Library of Congress. Since then, Hassett and Collette have used their literacy educational tools and public policy skills gained at UMBC, and connections in Tonga to support the island nation they have come to love.
Hassett, M.P.P. ’17, Ph.D. ’19, public policy, lived in the village of Fahefa on the main island of Tongatapu. Collette, M.A. ’21, TESOL, lived in the village of Ta’anga, on the outer island of ‘Eua part of an archipelago made of 170 islands.
Working and living alongside their community members and fellow teachers, they helped design and implement programs to further develop students’ English speaking, writing, and reading skills. As the second official language of Tonga, students are expected to master English and complete their high school entrance exams in English.
Hassett remembers within the first two months a parent asked if he could tutor her high school-aged son. He agreed to begin that very night. “As I waited, I heard the pigs and chickens run across the yard and smelled the wafting smoke of cooking fires in the air,” he remembers. Then he heard people yelling in Tongan. ”Before my eyes, my one student expanded into a crowd of high school kids from around the village, all bearing plates of food, fresh fruits, vegetables, and bread,” he says. Their parents began running out of their houses to ask if he could tutor their children, too? His one-on-one tutoring session evolved into a weekly night class.
One of Collette’s favorite teaching memories was working with 3rd and 4th-grade students on a career interest project. “Students created life-size cardboard cutouts of their heads and hands and decorated them according to the profession of their choice. “They wrote and memorized speeches explaining their career choice,” says Collette. “Students then presented their speeches to their parents while wearing their ‘professional outfits.’”
And similar to Hassett’s unexpected evening tutoring class, Collette developed a friendship with the principal at the primary school where she worked, offering help as he worked towards his bachelor’s degree in education from the University of the South Pacific remotely.
Through these experiences, Collette and Hassett forged strong friendships and partnerships giving them a great sense of connection across all sectors of the Tongan community beyond their Peace Corps experience.
At the same time, their friendship evolved into a relationship. They started dating and continued long-distance while Hassett traveled after he completed his service and when they returned back to the United States until they relocated to Baltimore together so Hassett could matriculate into UMBC’s Public Policy program as a Shriver Peaceworker. Collette became a teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools and Anne Arundel County Public Schools eventually enrolling in UMBC’s M.A. TESOL program.
Focusing on their graduate degrees did not replace the bond that had grown between themselves and the people of Tonga. In 2018, cyclone Gita hit Tonga with over a hundred mile per hour winds causing the most damage in 60 years. They were not aware of any other U.S. non-profits directly working in Tonga that were not religiously affiliated. Equipped with their skills from the Peace Corps and UMBC, along with their community-engaged connections, the pair co-founded Friends of Tonga with Peace Corps colleagues, friends in the nonprofit and development community, and members of the Tongan community.
One such member is Tu’amelie Mahe, the principal Collette used to work with. He now serves as education officer for school grant and asset management at the Ministry of Education and is the current program manager for Friends of Tonga. There are also Tongan’s in New Zealand participating. “From the perspective of a New Zealand born Tongan, being a part of Friends of Tonga allows those Tongans, who are a part of the diaspora, to actively participate in charity work that directly benefits Tonga,” says Neomai Maka, a high school teacher in Auckland, New Zealand. Her parents originate from the villages of Fua’amotu and Tatakamotonga in Tonga.
What began as reactive disaster relief support work, grew to become a proactive Peace Corps model community supporting Tongan-identified initiatives like education resources, English language skill development, and building cyclone safe schools.
“I am a friend of Tonga. I’m not Tongan. I can’t speak on their behalf,” shares Hassett. “I am not interested as a white man in telling Tongans what to do or what they need. I can be an ally and I can support them and champion the causes that they tell us they need help with.”
Weathering the storm
Later that year, they returned to Tonga for both their honeymoon and their Sapate Uluaki, a wedding celebration. Hassett’s host family, the Fainga’a family, planned this celebration weaving Hassett and Collette deeper into their Tongan community.
During this visit, Friends of Tonga was asked to help rebuild the kindergarten that had been destroyed by a category four cyclone earlier in the year and had been operating out of a tent ever since. Collette and Hassett had lived through Cyclone Ian and Kofi in January and March 2014 respectively and witnessed the damage caused by bands of heavy rain, strong winds, and flash flooding.
“We jumped in,” says Collette. The logistical challenges of building a school were great. They reached out to their friend who is the CEO of Schools for Children of the World. “It was a true collaborative effort between architects and engineers familiar with building schools in countries prone to hurricanes, the Tongan Ministry of Education, and community members,” says Hassett. Via a string of Facebook calls with engineers and architects, Tongan’s first cyclone and hurricane-resistant building was created. This one structure now functions as a school, community center, a shelter, and a place to house emergency supplies. The need for these types of structures was evident and a key factor in continuity of education and services.
Sustainable English language learning
Collette began working on assisting teachers find resources to improve English reading, writing, and speaking skills to increase student’s access to high school and further education opportunities. The obvious answer might have been increasing access to English language books but, with students spread over 170 islands, a central library would only give access to students living near the library. Books that are donated are often not aligned developmentally or content-wise. Buying books, transporting them, and managing the wear and tear caused by tropical and extreme weather makes a physical library costly and unsustainable.
The answer was not in the past but in the future. Wi-fi reaches most of the islands allowing at least one family member the use of a smartphone. A resource that is bound to grow makes digital resources sustainable. With permission from authors and volunteer readers, Collette developed a digital video library of English language beginner, intermediate, and advanced books.
Today, the library has 85 books that teachers, parents, and students can download using very little data. The theories and best practices gained during her TESOL master’s program, guided Collette in developing an English language learning curriculum for teachers and parents to use in tandem. “A video library meant rural students who didn’t have access to English language materials could download a file and share it with friends and family,” says Collette.
Collette and Hassett note that UMBC “is baked into all of our programming.” Joby Taylor, Ph.D. ’05, language, literacy, and culture, director of the Shriver Peaceworker Program, along with fellow Peaceworkers read many of the stories in the read-aloud program. Lauren Hamilton Edwards, assistant professor of public policy, is also guiding them in their strategic planning process.
Reading was only part of the puzzle needed to improve English language skills. Students needed more practice writing in English for their high school entrance exam. Collette designed a penpal program between Tongan students and students in the U.S. The written conversation became a way to learn about other cultures, practice sentence structure, and purposeful communication needed in school and in jobs.
“The results of a curriculum specifically for Tongan English language learners is exactly what the teachers, the Ministry of Education, and Friends of Tonga hoped it would be,” says Hassett. “Based on an analysis I did, the high school entrance exam scores increased by 10%.”
The Library of Congress took note and awarded Friends of Tonga, one of only 14 recipients globally, with a 2021 Literacy Award for “their implementation of highly successful practices in literacy promotion… and in recognition of the need for the international community to unite in achieving universal literacy.”
This was only the beginning. As an early childhood educator, Collette began searching for opportunities to assist the Ministry of Education and teachers to create a PreK-K program.
Then the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha‘apai volcano erupted on January 15, 2022, followed by a tsunami. The eruption lasted for 11 hours and devastated homes across the archipelago.
A Strong Network
The volcano completely disconnected wi-fi service, blanketed Tonga with ash, toppled homes, and contaminated rain water collection points. Hassett and Collette did not hear from their Tongan community for weeks. Thankfully, Friends of Tonga is made up of community members in Tonga as well as in New Zealand allowing a close point of contact to provide information, identify needs, and provide direct support. Through their networks, they were able to hear that the cyclone proof school was not affected by the volcano or the tsunami.
Friends of Tonga funded $15,000 to The Civil Society Forum of Tonga, a Tongan-led and Tongan driven NGO, and fundraised $9,000 for the Mainstreaming of Rural Development Innovation Tonga Trust. The funding is helping to provide water, sanitation, hygiene services, and assist farmers with harvesting crops damaged by the tsunami before they spoil. The food is being given to the communities that were evacuated from outer islands.
“The work that began a decade ago as Peace Corps volunteers was intentionally driven to build strong, long lasting, community, and personal relationships,” shares Hassett, the 2021 recipient of UMBC’s Distinguished Service Alumni Award. “We created a strong infrastructure of people and resources that has made it possible for us to support Tongans right now more than ever before.”