“When I’m older, I want to join the Peace Corps.”
Her uncle’s stories of the Peace Corps, living in a faraway place called Togo (West Africa) among people very different from him yet who became lifelong friends, had captured the imagination of Alice Potter ’18, a precocious 4-year-old. It was in her blood.
Potter and her family grew up in California while her father worked as a software engineer, and they also spent years living abroad, in Italy, Germany and France. Returning to the United States for college was never part of Potter’s plan; however, her mother did an internet search for colleges in the U.S. “with a good record of acceptance and graduation rates,” and Chaminade University of Honolulu popped up. The positive reviews about Chaminade’s student-to-faculty ratio, affordable tuition, overall quality, coupled with its location and Hawai‘i’s mild weather, all sounded very appealing. Her mother told her that if she got in, she would be going to the Marianist university. And to Potter’s surprise, the acceptance letter came. She was anxious to be going back to the U.S. and of all places the most remote 50th state.
There’s no place like Hawai‘i
Intimidated at first, she soon made new friends and began thriving in Chaminade’s customized learning experience. She also shared its values of serving the community by volunteering at the Waikīkī Aquarium. Aside from her studies, Potter also fell in love with Hawai‘i’s marine life and flora and enjoyed learning about the islands’ rich history. “Never before had I encountered a place so profoundly connected to its people like in Hawai‘i,” she says.
Living her dream of joining the Peace Corps
Potter graduated with a bachelor’s in communication degree with an environmental studies minor in 2018. At age 23, ready for a new adventure, she jumped at the opportunity to live her dream and join the Peace Corps. Because she spoke conversational French, Potter had hoped to be assigned to Africa specifically in Senegal; however, there was an opening to teach English in Southeast Asia. She had lived in a variety of places, yet she remembers experiencing culture shock when arriving in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country with more than 267 million people with a Muslim majority. She was immediately struck by the language barrier and the lack of personal space in this bustling yet conservative, spiritual society.
The Peace Corps helps new volunteers acclimate to their new country through an intensive two to three months Pre-Service Training (PST) program. Potter explains this included language lessons, cultural classes, as well as learning about Peace Corps procedures and the country’s rules and local customs, providing the skills and knowledge you need to thrive on your own. During this time, she lived with the first of three host families.
“My host family during PST was especially kind, patient, helpful and accepting, and I became very close to them,” Potter says. Her host family warmly welcomed her into their home, introducing Potter to many delicious Indonesian dishes, such as sate (marinated meat skewers), cap cai (stir-fried vegetables sometimes mixed with meat), nasi goring (fried rice) and rawon (beef soup), which became her favorite. Potter was relieved that one of her host twin sisters, Dhea, spoke English, helping her with the transition and translating for her twin, Adhe, and their parents.
Once her assignment began, Potter lived with two other host families: a single mother with grown children, a driven career woman who worked as a caterer for weddings and funerals, as well as a seamstress and a make-up artist; and a young couple who introduced her to carp rearing, bird catching and coffee time. A neighboring family acted as her “mom and dad” when Potter needed adult assistance and they took her on day trips.
Teaching is learning
Potter was assigned to a vocational training high school near East Java, where she taught English to 15 to 18-year-old students, 85 percent of them male and the rest female. School was held seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with extracurricular activities held on Saturdays. Potter says she taught two or three classes each day; class periods were two hours long for sophomores and juniors and one hour for seniors. The school offered career paths for students in fields such as auto mechanics, electrical work, computer work and broadcasting.
“Most of the time my students called me ‘Mister,’ or ‘mbak’ or ‘kak,’ which is equivalent to saying young miss or older sibling,” explains Potter. “I was the youngest teacher at the school,” she adds.
Halfway through her service, Potter was riding her bicycle back to school after a lunch break when she was hit by a motorcycle from behind. “Even though I was wearing a helmet, I had a pretty serious concussion. A piece of asphalt got inside one of the helmet vents and cut my scalp,” she says. “I also had cuts on my upper lip, under my eye and the edge of my forehead and some gashes along the right side of my face, arms and legs. Fortunately, I only needed stitches,” she adds.
The Peace Corps kept her in the capital for a few weeks for regular check-ups at the hospital. When she returned to school, she smiles as she remembers how the entire community—her host family, students and teachers—all offered to drive her home so she wouldn’t have to walk. “Student after student kept begging me to ride home with them,” she says with a laugh. The community was close-knit, reminding her of her ‘ohana at Chaminade.
“The insight I gained from the students was invaluable,” she readily admits. As a teacher’s assistant, Potter adds she learned so much more from her students than she could have ever imagined. “My students taught me patience and acceptance. They also taught me to acknowledge the cultural differences of education in Indonesia versus in the U.S. and that young adults, no matter where you are in the world, want to be heard. It was amazing to watch them blossom,” Potter says. Their hospitality and intelligence impressed her day in and day out.
Potter learned to speak English, French, Italian and German while growing up and could now count Bahasa Indonesian as her fifth language.
A lasting impact
The Peace Corps profoundly changed Potter’s life. She learned the importance of keeping an open mind and welcoming others from different backgrounds with appreciation and understanding. While the Peace Corps may not be for everyone, Potter believes everyone could benefit from broadening their perspective by experiencing other cultures. “Immersing yourself in a different country with a foreign language and culture will humble you, and you’ll learn so much about yourself,” she confesses. “The Peace Corps was a beautiful, eye-opening experience that made a lasting impact,” she adds.
Potter keeps in touch with her first host family and hopes to go back to Indonesia as soon as it’s safe to do so. Saya meninggalkan sesuatu istimewa. “I left behind something special,” she translates.
After her 27-month stint in the Peace Corps, Potter moved back to California. Today, she continues to serve youth by teaching part-time in an after-school program. What’s next for Potter? She hopes to put her communication degree to use and strive toward her next goal of becoming a producer or film director.