On Their Way : Nina Ferry
On Their Way is a new, occasional series, in which The Times introduces Martha's Vineyard Regional High School graduates who have moved on to establish themselves in careers on- or off-Island. We are looking for young people who have distinguished themselves by their accomplishments in business, in social services, in the military, in academics, in fact in any meaningful way you might imagine. Your suggestions will be welcomed by Nelson Sigelman or Whit Griswold, at The Times.
Why? It's the disarmingly simple and hopelessly complex question that some toddlers use in response to almost everything they are told. Nina Ferry, 24, of West Tisbury and the world, was one of those constantly inquisitive children.
"As a kid, I always asked questions," Nina says. "A lot of people thought it was cute, and a lot of people thought it was intrusive, but I'm just curious, and I'm interested in every aspect of life."
That curiosity has drawn Nina far from her Vineyard home to Fiji, in a different hemisphere, in a different ocean, in a different world, really. Two weeks ago, she began to fulfill a three-year commitment to teach English in Suva, the principal city and capital of the archipelago nation deep in the South Pacific.
How did she get from here to there? She describes fifth grade, when many children are first exposed to world geography, as an ignition point.
"Fifth grade was the start of my academic career and my vision for the future. I knew I wanted to do something big. I wanted to be a lawyer, a writer, a judge, a pharmacist, a therapist."
By the time she graduated from Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, in 2003, she had refined her thinking a bit, but she still had a clear picture of her future.
"I expected to be living in a suburb, paying back my loans," she says. "I would have a nice house, a nice husband. I've always wanted to be a homemaker, and I figured I would be a powerful business woman."
Off she went to Assumption College in Worcester, from which she graduated summa cum laude in 2008. "I put myself through school. I worked three or four jobs starting from age 12. I babysat, worked at Conroy's, the Lambert's Cove Inn, the Square Rigger, and I mowed lawns. So I never got a chance to travel."
When the chance came to get out and see what's out past the limits of eastern Massachusetts, Nina jumped at it. "I studied abroad in New Zealand for a semester in 2006, and that really opened up my mind, she says."
Late in her senior year, Nina decided to apply for a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship. "It was a six-month application process, with a 20-page application, and I didn't think I had chance in the world. You know, it's a $23,000 fellowship."
After graduating, Nina drove across the country with two Vineyard friends, Sophie Abrams and Alex Schoenfeld. "We toured the whole country, 11,000 miles. Three of us and all our camping gear in a Prius. And I found a cool town - Telluride, Colorado."
Back on the Island in late summer, 2007, Nina finished her application and interview for the Rotary scholarship, and she heard she'd won that fall. It would be more than a year before the scholarship started, and Nina decided to return to Telluride in the interim. She worked first as a nanny, then as a waitress and a substitute teacher.
And something clicked when she found herself running a classroom. "It's innate, and it felt like what I've always wanted to do. I've always been interested in learning, in traveling, and in everything that's going on, and why not share that? Why not help others love learning and show them that path?"
Through the Rotary scholarship, Nina began the process of becoming a teacher. "I had to apply to a university, I had to set up a volunteer project, and I had to move to another country," she says. "The purpose of the program is to completely immerse yourself in another culture for a year."
Last February, she matriculated at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. Along with a full load of graduate school courses, Nina developed and ran a national essay contest for high school students in Fiji. She also organized an online cultural exchange, called Islands around the World, which connected students at the West Tisbury School with contemporaries in Scotland, Hawaii, Hong Kong, Tasmania, Japan, and New Zealand.
This coming March, she will graduate with a post-graduate diploma in education. Then, after either taking more courses or writing a thesis, she will qualify for a master's degree.
To pay for her continuing education, and to continue to live in her new island home, Nina will teach English to fifth-, ninth-, and eleventh-graders at the International School of Suva. She couldn't afford to stay in Fiji if she were teaching in a public school, where teachers are paid the equivalent of $1,500 per year.
Fiji has become a second home for Nina, and she loves it there. "Living in Fiji, when they talk about success, it's in love, it's in family, it's being alive every day, it's in being healthy," she says. "It's in seeing the sunrise, the sunset, a rainbow, or feeling a cool gust of wind from Antarctica. It's really phenomenal."
But it's not paradise. Suva, a city of some 150,000, has its share of problems. "It's dirty, there's a lot of poverty, there's a lot of crime, and it rains 80 percent of the time," Nina says. She has to travel more than two hours to find a beach in the sun.
Fiji is made up of some 350 islands, about half occupied. On the out islands life is much more primitive - no roads, no electricity, for example.
"It's really the end of the earth," Nina says. "Some of the islands you can only get to by helicopter, or by a boat which goes out only once a week, or once a month, even. Some people have nothing, and yet they are so generous, they'll give you their only possession almost."
A large portion of the children drop out of school, or fail, because they can't relate to a Western curriculum, and school is expensive. "It costs about $140 Fijian to go to school, and many parents only make $1,000 per year," Nina says. "I have a passion to help education in Fiji."
It's a tall order. "There's a lack of human resources, and a lack of professionals - anybody who is academic- or business-minded - because they leave," Nina says. "It's a ticket out. That's the Catch 22 of developing countries. If you educate all your children and they leave, what's left there to help the next generation?"
As for the future, Nina's not as certain as she once was. "I spent the first 24 years of my life looking at a goal and trying to reach that goal," she says. "And now I've finally learned to step back and just take each day as it comes."
But she knows that teaching will be central to her life going forward. "I want to keep helping people. I want my students to absorb a love of learning and a passion, whether or not it's academic. And to know there's a world out there, but there's also a world where you grew up."
No matter how far afield Nina wanders, she's unlikely to lose touch with her roots. "This is an amazing place," she says about her native Vineyard. "People live here because they want to. I go to the dump at 11:45 on Sunday, and I run into four or five people that I've known for years. And everyone's supportive. Everyone pitches in if there's a child who's having trouble. The Island nurtures you."
Nurturing is essential, but so is cultivation, and Nina's appreciation for the boost she's received from Rotary International is boundless.
"I wouldn't have had this experience without Rotary behind me," she says. "I'm just a girl that grew up in West Tisbury, and now I live in Fiji. Anybody can make their dreams come true, even if they didn't know they were dreams three years ago."