Katrina Deutsch, Cambodia, 2005
I am not a film maker, editor, or photographer. Sometimes, when asked, I can pretend to be a graphic designer. I am also no longer a student. Yet somehow, I am still an active member of Students of the World.
In the fall of 2003, as a student at the University of Michigan, I attended a screening of the documentary “A Closer Walk” for an extra credit assignment for one of my courses. Narrated by Glenn Close and Will Smith, the documentary was one of the first films to focus specifically on the global AIDS epidemic. I was moved by what I saw and became teary-eyed during various parts of the film. But what I remember most is a tall, attractive, blue-eyed student who spoke at the end of the screening on behalf of a young organization. He told the audience that he had traveled to Uganda the previous summer with a group of students from the University of Texas to make a documentary about AIDS in Uganda, and that he was hoping to do something similar the next summer with students from Michigan. At the time I didn’t even register who he represented, but the name of the organization was Students of the World.
I immediately signed up and was interviewed and accepted to the first University of Michigan SOW team, traveling to South Africa and Swaziland to document the effects of HIV/AIDS on the region’s youth. I wish I could also share how the tall, attractive, blue-eyed student and I fell in love while we silently photographed the effects of the devastating epidemic on the beautiful children of Africa, but alas, we didn’t.
In 2004, the tall, attractive, blue-eyed student graduated, and left me as leader of the established University of Michigan SOW chapter. During the “early years” of SOW, there was no relationship between Students of the World and the Clinton Global Initiative, which meant that chapters elected their own countries and causes. With the help of Courtney Spence, we traveled to Cambodia during the summer of 2005 to document the Cambodian education system post-Khmer Rouge regime, while volunteering as English teachers at the Malaysian non-profit L-CDI. The following summer, I accompanied the first joint Brown and Columbia team to Ethiopia to document the work of African Services Committee, an NGO providing free HIV/AIDS testing and counseling throughout the country.
African Services Committee received funding from the American Jewish World Service, which made a commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) to help combat HIV/AIDS in Africa. With this trip and two others, the relationship between SOW and CGI was beginning. In the background of all the trips and documentaries, the rest of my life was taking place, and I needed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life after graduation. During our time in Swaziland during my first SOW trip, we stayed in a small village with a Peace Corps Volunteer, and ever since that experience, I fantasized about joining the Peace Corps and becoming a member of a foreign community. Unfortunately, those fantasies were always interrupted by images of my parents locking me in a dungeon at the mere uttering of the words “Peace Corps.”
Yet, somehow, for some reason, I secretly applied to the Peace Corps, convincing myself that I probably wouldn’t want to go to wherever they wanted to send me, and that there was no reason to put my parents through the agony of knowing I had applied if I wasn’t going to serve. Coincidentally, my Peace Corps invitation was sent to my parent’s house in May 2006, while I was in the Students of the World office in Austin to hear Bill Clinton announce the new relationship between SOW and CGI. I thought that with my two experiences in Africa focusing on HIV/AIDS, my Peace Corps service would be in Africa as a health volunteer. I called my brother and asked him to quietly open the packet and whisper my assignment over the phone, so that my parents wouldn’t hear.
I was not going to Africa.
Because of the four weeks I had spent “teaching” English in Cambodia at L-CDI, the Peace Corps saw me fit to serve as an English teacher in Nicaragua, a member of the first group of TEFL Peace Corps volunteers in Latin America. They claimed that they had taken special care in choosing qualified educators with extensive teaching experience. Even though I questioned if my month in Cambodia qualified me as they claimed, I was still excited at the opportunity, and accepted my invitation.
Fast forward to today. I am now the Director of Education at WorldTeach, an organization that partners with governments and other organizations in developing countries to provide volunteer teachers to meet local needs and promote responsible global citizenship. I would not have discovered my love and passion for education if I had not been an education volunteer in the Peace Corps. I would not have been assigned as an education volunteer if I had not taught English for four weeks in Cambodia. And I would not even have applied to the Peace Corps if I had not met Lisa, the Peace Corps Volunteer in Swaziland. For these reasons, Students of the World is something more personal to me than the opportunity to make a documentary or travel to another country or participate in an awesome summer internship. Students of the World is what got me to where I am, when I didn’t even know where I wanted to be.