Mark Perez grew up in Sinajana, attended the University of Guam, taught at the Department of Youth Affairs and Southern High School, and eventually left to obtain his master's degree and doctorate in the mainland.
That was 20 years ago.
Now a professor of health education at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, Perez also has been coming back to Guam to visit family and friends every summer since. At one time, he also taught at the UOG summer camp. Then seven years ago someone said to him, "Let's try to get students to come here and experience the culture."
That's what Perez has been doing ever since then. For the summer, he brings CWU students who are studying health education and public health so they can receive real-world working experience.
As a perk, they also get to enjoy beach campouts on private property up north and attend the occasional wedding and family get-together, not to mention sampling island cuisine. Some even get to receive internship credit now as the culmination of their involvement.
Regardless of how many students Perez has brought with him, he said the one thing he hears year after year from those who've come is that everyone loves Guam's people and hospitality.
"It's a great way to get them out to experience the culture and contribute and do service learning," Perez said of his five students who made the trek this year, working with summer camp kids at the Sinajana Mayor's Office and at UOG.
They also don't limit their work to teaching only elementary students. While at UOG, they've worked with Korean college students to help them learn English, and in Sinajana and Mangilao they've done "lunch and learns" with the manåmko', learning their stories and what healthy aging is like on island.
"They're working with people from ages 5 to 95," Perez said. "It's a great mix."
While once he brought 22 students for the summer, he likes the smaller group style he has now as it allows them "to do more" by including the monthlong internships three will complete at the Department of Public Health and Social Services after their camp service ends.
"It's a great draw for them to do public health and try to learn and contribute," Perez said.
Celine Evans just graduated from CWU and is one of the three doing her internship at DPHSS after she finishes with the camp. She spent her entire senior year working on a project that dealt with sexually transmitted disease prevention. At DPHSS, she will be part of similar outreach and education programs involving communicable diseases, what she said was a natural progression from her previous work.
She had nothing but good things to say about her experience on island so far and has appreciated Guam's hospitable håfa adai spirit.
"I love it," Evans said. "The people, the food ... it's amazing. I think the food is my favorite part, but the people here are so nice. I think that's what I will miss."
Makayla Powell, who will be a senior and also is doing the public health internship, said she's really come to appreciate the CHamoru language, food and Guam's environment, specifically mentioning the weather, water, waterfalls and beaches.
"It's beautiful," Powell said.
Kyle DiDonato, a physical education major and senior, has loved his adventurous island experience, too.
Calling Guam's culture "amazing," he's come to appreciate the differences between here and the states, and said he'd recommend the program to anyone.
"It's a totally unique experience, especially if you've never been out of the states," DiDonato said.
He said what he will take with him most besides the memories of beaches, caves and barbecues is his time spent at luncheons with the manåmko', or senior citizens – what he said helped him achieve a more global perspective.
DiDonato especially appreciated hearing what they went through during World War II and how their ideas of the states and the world here has enabled him to grow as a person.
"A lot of them have never been to the states, but their perceptions of normal things that change when you go to a different place has given me a more global mentality," he said.