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Palak W.

“Most Dominicans have never encountered a person of my ethnicity before. It is truly a unique opportunity to see how locals perceive me and to teach them more about India.”

palak w headshot

1. What got you interested in the Peace Corps?

I first learned about the Peace Corps in a human geography course during high school. My teacher introduced us to her friend via Skype who, at the time, was a Community Economic Development Volunteer in Costa Rica. As she talked about her experience and responsibilities I was immediately intrigued. I left that classroom confident that I was going to do Peace Corps.

In college, I studied business and technology, which excited me, but during my senior year, I decided I was not quite ready to enter the corporate world. I feel this is because I have lived most of my life in a box. Meaning, I grew up with strict parents and my focus before college was mainly grades, tennis, and school organizations. With COVID, I was not able to have an ideal college experience nor was I able to study abroad. A big part of me wanted to teach business fundamentals while experiencing a culture different from my own. Thanks to my current Volunteer experience, I finally feel like I’ve stepped out of the box!

2. What projects are you working on?

My main job is teaching business to high school students and collaborating with entrepreneurs to further develop their businesses through marketing, accounting, and finance. Working in high school was a big challenge at first. Resources are scarce and it can be hard to keep students focused. However, I have changed the way I teach to make it more effective for students by using games and technology.

My other role is working with small businesses, which is really exciting. I am teaching businesses how to get their stores on Google maps, how to use WhatsApp Business, and how to keep track of expenses, all with the goal of learning and growing. Whether in the school or with entrepreneurs, teaching business fundamentals has been a unique experience for me and my students.

Outside of my main responsibilities, I have many projects in the community. Projects include free English classes for all ages, youth community clean-ups, obtaining smart boards for my high school, helping to paint the new Catholic church, and starting a girls’ dance group. I look forward to making sustainable change in this community through collaboration and tons of amor (love).

CED Entrepreneurship Conference featuring 2 entrepreneurs from my community.
Palak with two entrepreneurs from the community at an entrepreneurship conference.

3. What strategies have you used to integrate into your community?

Religion is very important in the Dominican Republic. Coming from a Hindu background, I never had the opportunity to experience Christianity. When I first arrived I made it a goal to visit all churches in my community. Every week I visit a different church, which helps me meet people and understand more about their religion. I have now gone to the Evangelical church, Jehovah's Witness church, Catholic church, and the Haitian Christian church. Although I may have different beliefs, learning about other beliefs helps me understand my students and community on a whole different level.

Going on runs in the evening has been an excellent way for me to exercise and also to get to know people in the community. I usually stop at certain people’s houses to check in and chat for a few minutes. A señora who lives on the other side of town often stops me and asks to sit and talk when she sees me running, and I always do, with pleasure. Because of this routine, I feel close to many people in this community. I aim to add more stops on my run!

4. What is a highlight of your time in service so far?

After a month in my community, I decided to start a free English class in order to get to know community members and spread my knowledge. I have had the pleasure of teaching 150+ people (youth and adults) so far, and hope to add more each week! Although teaching English is not the responsibility of a CED Volunteer, it’s supportive of my projects. In the Dominican Republic, fluency in English makes job opportunities much more accessible. I hope to teach English throughout my service to promote learning and employability.

I concluded my course with a party in the park at the end of the summer. Over 90 students attended, including kids, teens, and adults. Each class section prepared a song in English to sing—a dynamic way to learn and, of course, to have fun! At the end of the celebration I presented certificates in the fundamentals of English in order to encourage students to continue their English journey. Seeing students smile upon receiving their certificate was definitely a highlight of my service. I have never been a teacher before, and seeing students so proud of their learning was incredibly rewarding!

Palak gives an update on her community projects at a neighborhood meeting in the Dominican Republic.
Palak gives an update on her community projects at a neighborhood meeting in the Dominican Republic.

5. What have you enjoyed most about the community where you are serving?

I have enjoyed getting to know the people of this community more than anything. Creating relationships and learning about people who come from a completely different background is one of the best parts of service. I feel so strongly connected to some people here that I feel I must have known them in a past life.

Before moving into my own house, I lived with a host family.  My host mom treats me as a daughter and my host sister feels like the little sister I never had. Right in front of their bright orange house lived Inés, an abuela (grandma) who often sat in a plastic chair right outside her house. She wore a headband on her short white hair and always walked with her long wooden stick. She was always yelling about something but also had a soft warmth about her. A few weeks ago Inés passed away. Over six months I got to know Inés; I saw her every day, sat with her to watch TV shows in her living room, and grew attached. Her passing was probably the most difficult part of service so far, but I also feel blessed to have shared her last months. I am very thankful I got to know Inés.

6. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from your community?

The most important thing I have learned is to slow down. In the U.S. we have a tendency to always be on our toes and moving. In the Dominican Republic, people take their time and are rarely ever in a rush. When I first arrived, I was always on the go. I would greet people, talk to them for a few minutes, and then be on my way. I quickly learned that is not how things go around here. When people have visitors they expect them to sit, have a coffee, and talk for a while. It’s something I’m still getting used to, but I do feel this aspect of the culture allows me to live in the moment and enhance my relationships.

7. How do you spend time when you are not working on a project?

I spend my free time playing volleyball with kids, running, meditating, and working on my blog, which I created to document my Volunteer experience. When first researching the Peace Corps, it was difficult to find personal stories, which is a huge part of why I started my blog. Dedicating two years of your life is a huge decision, and this experience is not for everyone. I also want to remember everything I experience here. I hope my blog will help future Volunteers understand what service can be like and how to persevere through their challenges!

8. What are you looking forward to in your remaining time as a Volunteer?

I really look forward to sharing my culture with my community. I am a first-generation Indian American and it is interesting to discover what people know or think about my culture. Most Dominicans have never encountered a person of my ethnicity before. It is truly a unique opportunity to see how locals perceive me and to teach them more about India.

If they are at all aware of it, Dominicans get information about my culture from TikTok, Netflix shows, and YouTube. When high school students first called me “Mia Khalifa,” the name of a Lebanese actress, I felt uncomfortable. (Dominicans think I look like her because of my skin color, hair, eyebrows and black glasses.) But I it was because of lack of knowledge and education. As an Asian American Volunteer you might get called things you are uncomfortable with, but if you take the opportunity to educate people it can make you stronger.

I hope to hold an event where I can share my culture and offer henna to those who would like to try it. Henna is a type of dye that Indians put on their hands in beautiful designs to celebrate festivals or weddings. I think it would be an amazing experience to share this and give people a bit of insight into my culture.

9. Once you finish your service, what will you do differently when you return to the U.S.?

I won’t take what I have for granted. I grew up in a middle class family with resources and access to a good education. In my high school, students came to school in their cars, with coffee in their hands. They carried backpacks with computers, textbooks, pencils, calculators, you name it. Each classroom had a smart board and the science lab was filled with equipment.

In the Dominican Republic students in my community do not receive textbooks and often cannot afford pencils and notebooks. Teachers rarely print because it is expensive, and are limited to printing a certain amount of paper. Students receive school computers, but the majority sell them for money. These students are intelligent but without resources or technology they are bound to be left behind.

When I go back to the U.S. I know I will be a more thankful person. I will appreciate every moment with humility and grace.