May 18, 2012 by Sandra Petri
Drexel alumnus Joel Gerstman recently returned to his hometown of Maple Glen, Pa., after spending two years working for the Peace Corps in Surat Thani, Thailand.
After graduating with a degree in finance in 2009 and feeling unfulfilled after three co-ops and a year working in the field, Gerstman decided to join the Peace Corps.
“[It was a good] opportunity to help people in need but also to learn another culture and language and to challenge myself to live in a way I was not used to,” he wrote in an email.
Gerstman began working in Thailand in January 2010 as a community development volunteer. This involved a variety of contributions, including promoting organic farming, working with disaster relief after floods, starting a youth group that met to do community service work, and teaching sex education and HIV prevention to teens. He also taught English in local schools while organizing and hosting a radio show to “encourage cultural exchange through music and teach English.”
During his time at Drexel, Gerstman was involved with what was then the Center for Civic Engagement, now called the Lindy Center. He also tutored local middle and high school students throughout his undergraduate career. Gerstman said this sparked his interest in community service and opened his eyes to the rewards that come from volunteering.
“I realized following the traditional career path for finance would only leave me largely unfulfilled. I needed a change, and the Peace Corps sounded like a great stepping stone,” he wrote.
Gerstman said that his time volunteering and the community where he lived in Thailand also taught him a lot about “calming down and not taking anything too seriously.”
“Jai yen yen,” people would often tell him, which literally means “cool your heart.”
According to Gerstman, the most rewarding aspect of his time in the Peace Corps was building relationships in the community. He only lived with a host family for a month before moving into his own place, but he continued to eat dinner and spend time with them.
“My host mom has 11 kids, and they all started calling me her 12th. I still stay in touch and know I will always have a home away from home because of them,” Gerstman said.
If students are considering joining the Peace Corps, Gerstman recommends that they attend information sessions and talk to others who have completed their service already.
“If you have any individual concerns about the commitment Peace Corps takes, it’s best to ask someone who has experienced it firsthand,” he suggested.
Gerstman was one of 390 Pennsylvania residents serving in the Peace Corps at the time and one of 106 volunteers who were serving in Thailand.