News / Asia

In Indonesia, American Teachers Bridge Cultural Divide

Travis Bluemling in the classroom with his students
Travis Bluemling in the classroom with his students

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When President Barack Obama visits Indonesia this month (November 9-10), he is expected to recognize the work of Peace Corps volunteers as a model for cultural and educational exchanges between the United States and the largest Muslim majority country. So far, the program has been successful in helping dispel stereotypes about Islam and the West.

What Nisha Skariah, a recent university graduate from the U.S. state of Texas, lacks in experience, she makes up for with enthusiasm.

"I am hoping within these two years I can just get them more excited about learning in general, maybe not just English but to pursue their education a little bit more actively," she explains.

Skariah is six months into her two-year Peace Corps commitment to work as a teacher in a rural area of eastern Java. Peace Corps is a U.S. government assistance program that places teachers and development workers in developing countries.  

Skariah and 17 others are the first Peace Corps volunteers working in Indonesia in 45 years. Jakarta expelled the Peace Corps in 1965, in part because of anti-American protests from the Indonesian Communist Party and false rumors that volunteers were working for the CIA.

Skepticism

Today some anti-American sentiment still exists in Indonesia. It is driven in part by Islamic groups critical of U.S. foreign policy in Israel and the war in Iraq.

But with the election of President Barack Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a child, and a new U.S. emphasis on engagement with Asia, economic and political ties are growing between two of the largest democracies in the world.

President Obama's visit to Indonesia will highlight a number of areas where the two countries are working together, especially on security and economic issues. But Anies Basewedan, the president of Paramadina University in Jakarta, says education is the best investment the U.S. can make in Indonesia.

"If the U.S. is interested in making sure Indonesia is a successful democracy, put priority on education. Support Indonesia on ensuring access to education and to quality education is there," Basewedan said.

Positive thinking


While it is too early to evaluate the Peace Corps's impact, Skariah's teaching partner, Ayu Lestari Puspita Dewi, says her energy and motivation has already made a difference.

"She really helps me in the classroom because she brings lots of new ideas about teaching methods and new things just like, how to be more creative in the classroom and how to be more on time,"  Dewi said.

The Peace Corps experience in Indonesia is also about increasing understanding between the Islamic world and America. The volunteers live with families, and try to become part of the community where they live.  

Travis Bluemling says playing sports like volleyball has helped him feel accepted. Before coming to Indonesia, Bluemling says he was concerned, that as an American, he might not be welcomed in a Muslim community.

"However, I could not have been more wrong," Bluemling said. "They have allowed me to enter their house. I join them in their Muslim meetings. I joined them with fasting and I even entered the mosque."  

Changing minds

Some school officials say the American volunteers are more tolerant and cooperative than they anticipated. But Bluemling's teaching partner Hadi Purwanto says there has also been criticism that he is trying to implement change too quickly.

He says they had teachers complaining about that but they try to look at the bright side, because with Travis here they can learn from his discipline.

Bluemling says he too has much to learn about Indonesian life and language but as he becomes more involved in the community, the cultural differences become less important.

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