Today’s post comes from Sarah Wall with our partner organization America’s Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA). Sarah is a Master of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). She spent two years working in Senator Dianne Feinstein’s San Diego Office as a staff assistant where she conducted legislative research and supervised the university student intern program. Sarah is spending six weeks this summer interning at PKBI DIY in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The NGO, known as the planned parenthood of Indonesia, promotes sexual reproductive health among women and at-risk youth amongst the LGBT community, sex workers, street workers, and village communities through advocacy and outreach. We chose this piece for Sarah’s optimistic view of development work and her humility in recognizing that change cannot only come from the contributions of people like her. Everyday Ambassadors know that not everything can be accomplished in theory; Sarah is learning how to bridge the gap between her classroom knowledge and real-life experience.
After countless trips abroad as a tourist, I am thrilled to pursue the opportunity to spend the summer in Indonesia, experiencing the rich and diverse culture, interacting with people who come from a completely different background from mine, and making a real difference in the developing world. My first exposure to a developing country was a two-week trip to India where I experienced the richness of Indian culture and history and saw extreme poverty and wealth disparity. This astonishing contrast opened my eyes to the consequences of caste, religion, and language-based politics. During my first trip to Southeast Asia, I interacted with American teachers in Thai schools and visited orphanages in Cambodia. I saw first hand the development work being done and the impact volunteers and aid workers had on the lives of individuals in underrepresented communities. I was inspired to return and make an impact of my own. Since these trips, my career aspiration has been to improve the quality of life of people around the world by facilitating economic development, encouraging religious and cultural understanding, and promoting political peace.
As I have traveled throughout the world, the most striking learning experience has been realizing how much I have in common with women my own age, despite coming from completely different countries, families, and religions. It would be easy to assume that the women and youth of Indonesia, being a predominantly Muslim country, would be completely different from those of America, especially given the negative view of the Islamic faith that many Americans have. However, both through studying Islamic history in university and travel to Morocco, I have found the opposite to be true. The Islamic faith is based on five pillars promoting generosity, loyalty, and love; as I interacted with Moroccan youth, who will undoubtedly shape the future of Morocco, I found that we share common career aspirations and dreams for the future. I had anticipated a similar experience when I took off for another part of the world.
One of my favorite parts of my first trip to Southeast Asia was visiting the historical mosques and temples throughout Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, and celebrating the beautiful blend of religions that contributes to the vibrant culture of the region. However, while I was drawn to the caring and welcoming people that I interacted with, I was also acutely aware of the ongoing struggles, especially for women and youth, caused by continued religious tension and conflict. I was eager to return to Southeast Asia and contribute to resolving key socioeconomic and cultural conflicts. In Indonesia, it seemed that these conflicts hindered communities from feeling the full benefit of the democratic and economic development.
Having already traveled in part of Southeast Asia, I had a small understanding and expectation of what arriving in Indonesia would be like. Traveling abroad, I have learned quickly that the cultural norms that I have become so acquainted with in my first-world upbringing do not always apply in other countries. Try to form a line without pushing your way to the front—you will never move an inch. Find a small bug in your food—what’s a little extra protein? So, I knew to prepare for the initial culture shock and for just about everything to feel unfamiliar. But, expecting culture shock doesn’t take care of everything. I had to be ready, and willing, to adjust quickly to not only a new culture but also a mindset. I was excited to celebrate the unique social norms that make Indonesia special.
Indonesia has shown a commitment to democracy and economic growth, but still faces challenges in ensuring benefits and social services are evenly distributed to underprivileged regions and groups. PKBI helps advocate for women and empower them to drive social change within their own country. While SIPA has provided me with the opportunity to analyze cases studies of peace-building and conflict resolution in transitioning countries—from post-tsunami recovery in Indonesia to agricultural reform in Myanmar—I have not been able to see firsthand the implementation of these development strategies in a country-specific environment. I look forward to applying this academic knowledge to Indonesia through my work with PKBI and learning how the context of Indonesia’s political, economic, and cultural systems affect the development strategies that organizations in the region pursue and the realities of implementing community development programs.
Through my involvement with AUA, my goal is to support the mission of PKBI, working to help women and youth break down barriers to achieving their dreams and ensure that we not only share common goals, but also have equal opportunities to reach those goals.