By Peter Vankevich
Former Ocracoke School teacher Shea Youell felt a duty to expand his horizons, he said on a visit to the island last December.
That’s why two years ago he took a big leap and joined the Peace Corps.
It didn’t matter where he was assigned.
“You can apply for a specific region of the world,” he said in a recent interview while visiting Ocracoke while on a break from teaching English in Macedonia. “I didn’t do that. I was willing to try anything and for me that was important—to do anything that was asked of me.”
Youell is in his third year in Kumanovo in this country on the Adriatic Sea.
“It’s not our job to get involved I politics, or religion, or convince them that America is any way better,” he said during an interview while staying with Bill and Lida Jones. “We are there to learn and help where we can.”
The experience is open-ended.
“We will learn an equal amount if not more than the Macedonians,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to get to know a country that is not America, and to meet people very different from us.”
The region and history are incredibly complex, he said.
“A lot of things have happened in the Balkans,” he said.
Part of that education is from staying first with native families before beginning a work assignment.
Youell stayed with two families before beginning his teaching position at two schools.
“The families I’ve lived with have been incredibly warm and kind,” he said.
Youell teaches at two schools—one in the city and one a village. His city school has 25 in a class and his village school is more like his Ocracoke experience, with some classes fewer than 10.
“Students are students,” he said about his charges. “They’re very well-behaved and very kind. Some excel academically, some need more support, and that’s the same across the board.”
Peace Corps volunteers are not allowed to drive.
“I often walk to work,” he said, which could be a 40-minute walk. “Or I ride the bus or get a ride with another teacher.”
Schools in Macedonia are taught in shifts. Separate morning and afternoon accommodate all the students that attend the schools.
As for food, “It’s meat and potatoes,” he said. “There are some beets. Pork’s big with the Macedonian population. There’s chicken. Beef is pretty expensive. Occasionally they’ll eat lamb in villages, and they’ll eat goat, but it’s not an item you’ll see on restaurant menus.”
Youell’s journey farther into the world began after he graduated in 2011 from UNC Chapel Hill with highest distinction as an education major.
“I wanted to go out to Montana,” he said. “I thought Montana was an interesting place.”
Although he got a few job offers, the salaries were too low.
Then he came back East and learned about Ocracoke where he met Alton Ballance, Center Fellow at the North Carolina Center for Advanced Training (NCCAT) and author of “Ocracokers,” who encouraged him to apply for a teaching position on Ocracoke.
He met with school Principal Walt Padgett, who, at first indicated that there wouldn’t necessarily be a job offer.
“But after talking to him, he offered me a job,” Youell said. That was in 2012, replacing retiring Gail Hamilton as the middle school language arts teacher.
“It was the best first job anyone could have asked for,” he said about teaching on Ocracoke for two years. “But my dream was, and still is, to be able to write.”
That may be fiction or non-fiction. He’s still contemplating his next move.
An accomplished runner, having placed seventh in the 2013 Ocracoke 10K race with a 41:33 time, Youell is still practicing this skill.
Depending on how well his training goes, will run either the full or half marathon in the capital city of Skopje on May 8.
In the meantime, he is enjoying his experience living in a different part of the world from the small Virginia town in which he grew up.
“It’s been a good experience,” he said about the Peace Corps. “I’ve met so many wonderful people. When I leave that’s what I’ll remember—that so many people have been unbelievably kind to an American who does not speak the language well.”