"Dreamer” Jessica Asmus is fulfilling another bucket wish — one of her big ones.
A week ago, the Whitman College graduate who now lives in Longview flew off to Europe for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps teaching English in Elbasan, one of Albania’s largest cities.
The assignment will fulfill her dream to travel, travel and travel some more. Asmus, 22, doesn’t speak a lick of Albanian, but she’s fully at ease about the coming adventure and looking forward to encountering new people and cultures.
“It’s just incredible to sort of become part of that and to experience it rather than just hearing about it,” Jessica said.
“Everyone (in the Peace Corps is) like, ‘I’m so nervous, and what do I pack and what do I do?’ I’m just like, ‘Eh, it will work out,’” Asmus said in an interview before she departed. “Even if things don’t work out the way you want, in the end, you’re not going to die probably, and things will be fine.”
The Peace Corps chooses only about a third of the 12,000 applicants it receives in a typical year.
Asmus traces some of her confidence and success to a visionary program that helped her overcome a difficult childhood, in which she was bounced between different schools, foster homes and relatives’ homes until she was 18.
In 2002, she was among 63 Wallace Elementary School fourth-graders adopted into the I have a Dream program, a national effort that matches mentors with fourth graders and offers a support network and the promise of college tuition assistance if the students complete high school. Asmus says the Dreamers scholarship was a help, but the bigger value was the emotional support and stability she received from Dreamer mentors Margaret and Greg Lapic of Longview.
“It’s just nice to have that support that so many people take for granted,” Asmus said, referring to help provided by the Lapics. “I appreciate them more than I could ever tell them.”
Margaret Lapic, who helped establish the Dreamers program, turns the credit around: “I was really proud of her. She really overcame huge challenges to be a good student and survive the surroundings in which she found herself, and follow through on college applications, and actually have an opportunity to make a better life.”
Asmus knows now that her mother was poor and struggled with alcohol, but she didn’t doesn’t remember her early childhood as impoverished.
“I just remember being happy,” she said. Her mother was a “great mom.” She would ensure the kids had presents on holidays, let them pick out a special meal for birthdays and sometimes went without eating to ensure her children had enough food.
“She wanted us to have what other kids had,” Asmus said. “My life was good before my mom died. It really was.”
Asmus became part of the Kelso School District’s I Have a Dream Program when she was 9, shortly before her mother passed away, but she soon lost touch with the program. She moved in with her father in the Portland Metro area and attended four different schools during seventh grade. Her dad, who Asmus said used drugs, quit requiring her go to school, and she didn’t finish eighth grade.
But Asmus always liked school and eventually realized the importance of education, that “it was the only way I was going to get out of that life,” she said.
By her second semester of high school, Asmus had moved in with a foster family and found herself earning straight A’s. At Wahkiakum High School in Cathlamet, she found a new sense of self-worth in scholastic accomplishments. She even had the chance to travel to France and Germany, priming her interest in travel.
“I was surrounded by people (at Wahkiakum High School) who cared about education,” she said. Asmus worked part-time jobs with local businesses and conservation organizations after school and was on Wahkiakum’s track and cross-country teams. She worked hard to win scholarships, and because of her background and academic performance, money wasn’t a major obstacle to her college aspirations.
‘A dose of love’
Asmus also reconnected with the Lapics and the I Have a Dream program during her time in Cathlamet. She participated in the program’s activities, such as field trips and tutoring. In addition, the Lapics gave her support and “stability” during a difficult transition to Whitman, an exclusive school with a wealthy student body where she often felt like an outsider.
“People just knew I was different,” Asmus said. She felt depressed and took a medical leave from school. She felt she had nowhere to go, so the Lapics took her in.
“What she really needed was a great, big, slopping dose of love,” Margaret Lapic recalled.
After two months with the Lapics, Asmus said she felt as though she’d found new parents. She quit taking anti-depression pills and just focused on being happy. She returned to Whitman and graduated in 2013.
Although many people take inspiration from Asmus’ ability to overcome challenges, she tends to brush it off.
“I know it sounds really absurd, but it is what it is, and I lived it, and I survived and it was my normal,” she said. “Everyone has challenges.”
She says her past has been a good preparation for her assignment in Albania.
“I realize I’m not going to go to Albania and save the world, and that’s fine,” Asmus said. She just wants the opportunity to make at least one life better.
“That’s what I’m going for,” she said. “I’ve experienced American poverty, and it’s really sad and it breaks my heart, but it’s just as bad and worse in other cases.”