Student couple brings education opportunity to schoolchildren in Micronesia

The Akoyikoyi student body grades 4-8 pose for a photo. Ava and Lawson Duce both teach at the school. (Photo courtesy of Ava Duce)

When Lawson Duce returned from his mission in Micronesia in March 2020, he could not have foreseen that a year and a half later he would be returning to the country, this time with his wife, Ava Duce, and another mission in mind. 

The two Canadian BYU students decided to defer their schooling and move overseas for a year to teach school to children on a remote island.

“I never imagined it would be possible to return to Chuuk with my wife. I’m so happy to be back and being here together is better than I could have ever expected,” Lawson said. 

The couple teaches at Akoyikoyi School in Chuuk Micronesia. According to Lawson, Chuuk comprises several islands within a lagoon. Akoyikoyi School is located on the main island, Weno.

Ava explained she and her husband had dreamed of returning to Chuuk together since they were married in December 2021. 

“We were always trying to figure out how we could go back and visit while we were still young and didn’t have kids, knowing that if we waited too long to go visit we possibly never would,” Ava said. 

The chance presented itself when Lawson saw a Facebook advertisement for candidates with at least two years of college education to travel to Chuuk and teach at the Akoyikoyi School. 

According to Ava, Lawson was “absolutely giddy” when he came home to tell her about the opportunity. They reached out to the school’s director, Clark Graham, and corresponded with him via email and video call. 

Ava and Lawson stand on the beach of an outer reef island. They boated to the island to camp for a long weekend off from teaching. (Photo courtesy of Ava Duce)

“I started getting as excited as Lawson was … knowing how much Lawson loved Chuuk, when he brought up the idea to go back I was … 100% for it!” she said.

The next step was to figure out how to put school on hold for two whole semesters. Ava had just been accepted to the BYU nursing program, and Lawson was studying cell biology and physiology. 

The BYU College of Nursing was supportive of the opportunity for experiential learning, Ava said. Nursing advisors, along with the international office advisors, helped Ava and Lawson with the deferment process. 

“We are so glad we chose BYU because any other college likely wouldn’t have let us take a break in the middle of our programs and come do something like this,” Ava said. 

The school was founded by Graham; his wife, Chineina Graham; and their son, Keitani Graham, in 2010. Graham came to the area as a peace corps volunteer in 1966 and has stayed ever since.

“Children and youth in Chuuk have extremely limited opportunities. Knowledge is power and a good education will give you the skills and knowledge to succeed,” Graham said.

Akoyikoyi School is named after a bird native to Chuuk that sings at the start of a new day, Lawson said. This coincides with the school’s motto: “Awakening opportunities.”

“Many kids have had doors open to them because of their education at Akoyikoyi that would have never been open for them,” Lawson said. 

There is a severe lack of teachers on the island, he said, and many elementary school children simply cannot attend school because of it. 

Lawson Duce visits one of his the families from his time as a missionary in Chuuk. Lawson served his mission in the area and returned with his wife a year and a half later to teach school. (Photo courtesy of Ava Duce)

According to Graham, the school does not charge tuition and accepts all students. It serves students grades K-8.

Curriculum includes oral English, reading and arithmetic. Additionally, Lawson and Ava each teach an extracurricular class. Ava teaches music and Lawson teaches gardening and plant propagation.

“We were so short of teachers that, to be perfectly honest, had Ava and Lawson not come to teach at Akoyikoyi School, we might still not be open,” he said. 

A typical day for Lawson and Ava begins with a walking commute to the school where they teach. The 20-minute walk follows the edge of the island of Weno, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, several of their students join them one by one. 

From 8-11 a.m., they teach the younger grades. The older grades come from 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. After school the couple walks home and prepares to do it all again the next day. This is their routine Monday through Friday, according to Ava. 

“It’s been amazing so far and our time here is already going by too fast. The days at school are long and sometimes hard but very rewarding,” she said.

On the weekends, Ava said they explore the island. Their activities include hiking, sightseeing, boating, picnicking, fishing and visiting Lawson’s mission friends.

One of the couple’s favorite places to explore was a lighthouse built by Japan during World War II.

Ava said that they have not only had teaching opportunities in Chuuk but missionary opportunities as well. On Sundays, they attend a small branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and sometimes join missionaries for lessons. 

Ava, Lawson and the Mechitiw branch where they attend church. In addition to teaching school, Ava and Lawson also join the branch missionaries for lessons. (Photo courtesy of Ava Duce)

According to Lawson, children in the community of Chuuk often do not get the opportunity to receive an education because of the need for more teachers.

Akoyikoyi is one of the best schools in the area, and many graduates from Akoyikoyi get into the best private high schools in the country, Lawson said. This helps them go on to attend college, sometimes in the U.S.

“You can see the good it has done already for the community as the kids can speak fluent English and are ambitious about their futures,” he said.

Teaching at Akoyikoyi School and living in Chuuk has been a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” Ava said.

The experience has brought the couple so much closer together already, Ava said. She explained the lifestyle feels similar to a mission but teaching school instead of missionary lessons.

“Both of our missions were such formative parts of who we are and now we are experiencing something similar but together … We are creating memories that I know we will look back on and talk about for the rest of our lives,” she said.

The couple highly recommended the experience and Graham said the school is actively recruiting more teachers. Anyone with interest should email him () for more information or fill out a teacher application on the website.

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