Getting off the beaten path: A South-Asian American volunteer reflects on service in Indonesia

(Photos courtesy of Kruti Patel)
(Photos courtesy of Kruti Patel)

I remember wanting to join the Peace Corps when I was in high school. I was really attracted to humanitarian work abroad. When I was 18, I said I was going to join the Peace Corps when I graduated from college. When my senior year at American University came around, I applied knowing that it was the next step I wanted to take after graduation.

My family wondered why I would take a volunteer position instead of a salaried job, especially because college tuition had cost so much. When they learned that the Peace Corps paid for travel and health insurance, they were fine with me going. They literally said, “Oh, we don’t have to pay for your flight? Yeah, you should do it.” My parents supported me in the process, but it wasn’t until I received my country assignment in Indonesia that they started getting excited for me.

My main job was to co-teach English at a high school. I taught several classes with 30 to 40 kids per class. It was overwhelming, but overall I enjoyed the experience. As a secondary project, I created a two-day camp called Camp SEHAT, “Sex Education and HIV/AIDS Awareness for Teens.” In Bahasa Indonesia, “sehat” means “healthy.” A local nonprofit ended up adapting the camp model I created. By the time I left service, over 600 students had gone through Camp SEHAT. I also saw other Volunteers using the resources I had left behind to create the same camp at their sites.

One major highlight was my experience tutoring a girl in English storytelling. She entered a storytelling competition and ended up making it to the regional competition. Later, she wrote about how I inspired her to focus on education and wait until her late twenties for marriage (in my village, most girls got married between 18 and 22) for a class assignment. I’m glad I was able to inspire someone through my example.

My other major accomplishment was hiking a volcano by myself. I had never done a solo hiking trip, and before Peace Corps I didn’t really camp or hike. Although I ended up getting lost on the volcano and also lost six toenails, I am very proud of my accomplishment.

I learned during my service that material things don’t mean much. I used to love shopping so much that I left for Peace Corps with three suitcases full of clothing. When I closed my service, I had half a backpack full of stuff, and even that felt like a burden to carry across the globe on my journey back home.

Being a returned Peace Corps Volunteer is a large part of my identity now. After service I dreamed of continuing my travels and working to improve livelihoods, reduce poverty and hunger, and spread gender equality. I ended up pursuing a graduate degree in international studies at Columbia University. Even when I was getting my master’s degree, people knew me as the girl who served in the Peace Corps. I tend to gravitate towards people who have values I identify with the Peace Corps—those who are kindhearted, hardworking, grounded and adventurous.

My advice to those of South Asian ancestry or anyone interested in Peace Corps is, do it! Jump in! Peace Corps looks great on graduate school applications and you’ll have plenty of down time during service to study for entrance exams. South Asian representation is increasing in all industries, whether it’s government, entertainment, tech, medicine, or academia. If you’re scared to do something because diverges from the typical path of what other family members are doing, just know that you’re not alone. There’s a community of us who can help you navigate new waters.

Kruti Patel served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Indonesia from 2014 to 2016. She hails from Connecticut and completed her undergraduate degree at American University, where received a B.A. in international studies with a double minor in economics and Chinese. After service she attended Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and received an M.P.A. in development practice.



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