Thursday, November 19, 2009

To Renew or Not to Renew…That is the Question

I recently got an email from my supervisor at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta letting us ELFs know that it is already time to start thinking about whether we want to renew our fellowships for 2010-2011. Since we’re not even 3 months in to the 10-month fellowship, it seems really early to be asking this question, but that’s how the program rolls.

Given my recent posts about not wanting to learn Indonesian, power outages, lack of Internet connectivity, housing issues, food issues, etc., you may be somewhat surprised to hear that I am even considering staying in Indonesia for another year. Yes, there are a lot of frustrations to living here, but never once have I wished I didn’t come.

I am changing and growing every day here. In these two short months alone, I have learned volumes about Islam and have confronted poverty first hand. Moreover, for the first time in my life, I am living in a collectivist culture, which constantly challenges all my individualist notions about how society works. My intercultural competence is increasing daily and I know that this fellowship, whether it lasts one year or two, will be yet another defining experience of my life.

This fellowship is also a great opportunity to develop professionally. Earlier this month, I gave a workshop on “Integrating Skills” to lecturers in the English department at UNG. Next month, I will be presenting on “Using Peer Reviews to Improve Student Writing” at the TEFLIN conference (Teachers of English as a Foreign Language in Indonesia) in Malang. Then, in January there will be a series of workshops in Makassar, Yogyakarta and Solo.

Also, let’s not forget the incredible diving and travel opportunities that living in this part of the world affords. This year, I will be spending my Christmas vacation in Bali and Australia bumming around with Courtney, Stephanie and my friend Nat, who lives in Sydney. Then I’m heading back to Sulawesi to take the PADI Advanced Open Water Diver course in Bunaken with Mark. And that’s just talking about now until mid January. The travel opportunities here are fantastic and if I stay another year, then there’s so much more I could see…

Plus, this fellowship has introduced me to nine amazingly smart, funny and down-to-earth teachers who are quickly becoming good friends. As an added bonus, I also have totally awesome ETAs. I must admit, I really like the company I’m keeping here. Granted, next year this group will change, but fortunately some of the other ELFs are also thinking about renewing.

Finally, staying another year would guarantee me a job and an income. This gig pays pretty well for an English teaching job and there are all sorts of added bonuses like free housing, paid travel and living expenses, and program funding. I know many people back home who have multiple degrees and are out of work. I know people working part-time jobs but wishing they had full-time jobs. I know people in their 30s who have moved back in with their parents to save a little money. This is a full-time job that guarantees me a salary, housing, multiple allowances and a huge, life-changing adventure to boot.

So, what’s holding me back? What would be my reasons for not renewing? Well, the biggest reason is that I miss my family and friends a lot. Distance is hard and it’s even harder when you’re troubled by the thought that you might never see your loved ones again. This thought has haunted me for the past five years, ever since my family survived a fatal car accident in Iceland. This fear was brought to the forefront of my thoughts again when the father of one of the other ELFs died suddenly at the beginning of the semester. Knowing that life can be extinguished in an instant forces me to wonder if it’s not selfish of me to be living so far away from home for so long.

The other reasons I have for not renewing are not nearly as compelling. Clearly, life would be much easier and more comfortable back in the States or in Western Europe - I could easily find stores that sell the things I need and I wouldn’t have to worry about power outages or lack of Internet connectivity. I would be able to understand what people are saying to me and would have a clearer understanding of workplace expectations. What’s more, bathrooms in the U.S. and Western Europe have Western toilets, toilet paper, soap and light bulbs! How amazing! And then there’s the food issue - I miss cheese and wine and pizza and burgers and lox bagels and Mexican food and Italian food and New York City Restaurant Week. On a slightly more essential note, I feel like I have zero dating opportunities here and this is a part of my life that I don’t particularly enjoy putting on hold. For one, it’s rather hard to meet people here that I would be interested in dating and two, even if I did manage to find a boyfriend here, he certainly wouldn’t be able to spend the night, given the predominant Muslim beliefs about dating and marriage.

On the other hand, my philosophy of life is well expressed by this Anais Nin quote, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage”. Accordingly, my life so far has been a collection of amazing experiences that probably never would have happened if I hadn’t found the courage to leave my comfort zone and strike out into unfamiliar territory. Living in Indonesia is my latest adventure and I’d like to think my life will be that much more extraordinary if I stay another year.

I have until December 10th to decide.


  1. Such a big deal! Take your time and REALLY think about this! You will know what is right when the time is right. Good luck to you. Keep us posted.

  2. Such a big decision, and so little time to make it! I wish you the best of luck in figuring it out.

  3. It is surprising that they've already started asking you about this. Is the only choice whether or not to accept this particular posting? Or would you be able to renew a posting elsewhere in Indonesia? Elsewhere in the world?

    I remember that the site says generally ELFs are only eligible for two postings. This is a big decision, so it's good that you're starting to think and share your ideas about what this all means.

  4. A renewal is not automatic, but here's how it works. Most sites are allowed to have an ELF for two years. Since my site had an ELF last year, UNG will most likely not be renewed. However, I am still eligible to request a renewal for another site in Indonesia. The catch here is that I have to be willing to accept any site I'm assigned; I can't request a specific city or university.

  5. Wow, I'm surprised you have to make a decision so soon. We ETAs had until the late spring/early summer to decide whether to extend. Perhaps it's time to bring out the good old magic eight ball again! :-) Hope to chat on the phone sometime soon! Love, Banny P.S. Remember your Bowdoin prof's words of wisdom: "Whatever decision you make will be the right one."

  6. One of my friends here introduced me to this decision making technique. Pretend that you have already decided and sit with that decision for a week, acting as if you have decided every time you think about the issue. Then you can see how it felt with no obligation.

    You did mention that the other ELFs seemed happier overall with their postings... so it might be a move up if you can change locations.

    Can your family come to visit? I sure wish we could :)


  7. Banny - Hahaha, funny that you remember that!

    Teena - Good advice! I was actually already thinking about doing that. But right now I'm leaning more towards staying, especially after my fantastic diving experience last week! I hope my family can come visit. We'll see! Unfortunately, there are no free Continental flights to Indo. However, Continental does fly to Hawaii, so maybe if I stay another year I can rendezvous with my family for Christmas in Hawaii next year.