Interview with Phoebe Kurien

This week Susquehanna University's Her Campus chapter is celebrating National Volunteer Month with a week of themed content. This gave me the perfect opportunity to interview an inspirational woman on our campus. Phobe Kurien is a senior Biomedical Science major who will be going to Malawi at the end of this summer as a Community Healthcare Specialist with the United States' Peace Corps. 

Phoebe first learned about the Peace Corps when she was in middle school, at a career/college fair. She knew then that the Peace Corps was something that she wanted to pursue, even though her parents did not take her seriously. Because she has had her heart set on applying for the Peace Corps for several years, Phoebe has taken several steps to become a strong candidate to receive an invitation. For example, Phoebe had four, yes, four jobs this summer in addition to taking 8 credits worth of courses. These included shadowing a family practitioner in her NJ hometown, volunteering for 12-hour night shifts as an EMT, and tutoring/babysitting on weekends. 

What, if any, reservations did you have while making the decision to participate in Peace Corps, and how did you overcome them? 

"Career-wise, I am in a pretty solid place. If anything, volunteering with the Peace Corps will give me better opportunities and access to grants. The biggest thing on my mind has been the impact my absence will have on my siblings. I have a 12 year old brother and a 9 year old sister, so I will be missing important developmental years for them." Phoebe is very close with her siblings, and she is aware of her influence as a role model to them. "My brother will tell me 'I did this, just like you did.' I know that they look up to me, so even though I am going to miss them like crazy I want to show them that I am able to succeed at something I have wanted to do for such a long time. I hope that they will learn to think 'I can do whatever I put my mind to' with the same confidence I have."

Why did you decide to pursue service after graduation?

"Service is something that has always been on my heart, it has always meant a lot to me. My grandmother recently finished a service tour of Kashmir. My grandfather on my father's side of the family was a missionary doctor in Zambia." Phoebe spent most of her early childhood in India - she became a U.S. citizen at age 16. Growing up in South Asia, she witnessed high levels of poverty. "I'd see children in the streets and want so badly to take them home with me, but of course I was too young to be able to help them. Now, I am finally in a position where I am able to take time off and give back and I feel a moral obligation to." 

What type of service will you be involved with in Malawi? 

"I will be focusing on developing healthcare programming where I am placed. I know that Malawi has placed a large focus on Malaria and HIV prevention education, but I will provide whatever the community needs which could be as general as hygiene." Phoebe also explained that part of her role will be to establish communal relations with the village she will be living in. "I hope to connect and communicate with the people, I want to be invited into the community. I'm not going to just show up like 'Hey it's your lucky day, here I am.' I know going in that this is not my community but I would like to become a part of it. I will be flexible and meet them with whatever their needs are."

In your words, what is the mission of the Peace Corps?

"In my words? I don't know if I'm legally able to... hold on let me check my HIPPA," Phoebe giggled and consulted her phone for a moment. "Alright, so the Peace Corps was founded in the 1960s under the Kennedy administration with the intention of extending American friendship. But for me personally, as an American Indian woman, joining the Peace Corps has an intersectional element to it. I chose my nationality, I choose to identify as an American. I have attended high school and college in the United States. To me, this experience is my opportunity to participate in the American Dream. The United States government is funding this opportunity for me to go volunteer in a place that does not have the infrastructure of a developed country."

How do you think the Peace Corps benefits the global community?

Phoebe's answer to this question aligns with the role she will have when she travels to Malawi. "Global health is an important issue that the Peace Corps addresses. Right now I'm going to get a little political - the anti-vax movement in Western countries is an example of something that really angers me. Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children without valid health or religious reasons are putting entire communities at risk. Healthcare seems like it should be a basic right - but even in the United States...you feel me? At the end of the day though, we are a developed country that has widespread healthcare access. Malawi is only the size of Tennessee - and its healthcare system ranks 185 out of 190 countries. Diseases like HIV have the potential to be eradicated if people are properly educated. I am a very community-based person so I am passionate about providing the information and education necessary to lower HIV rates." 

Finally, what advice would you like to share with anyone who is considering service after graduating?

"Go out with an open heart – sometimes you get so involved in semantics but you need to keep in mind that big service organizations are doing the best they can for countries that have very little infrastructure & organization. Please go into it wholeheartedly and go there remembering the core reasons why you wanted to – I remember how my family members inspired me with their service and that I want to also be a role model to my siblings."

"Also, don't feel like you aren't qualified because you're intimidated by volunteers who seem so perfect. I’m a hot mess but I care A LOT and I think that’s my best attribute. When I set my heart on something, I’ll give 120% - but I’m not perfect. Don't feel like you have to be either."

To follow Phoebe's Peace Corps experience in Malawi, follow her Instagram @phoebstakesontheworld! Good Luck Phoebe! <3