Jess Ainlay: Thanks for meeting with me, Suma! What first sparked your desire to live abroad?
Suma Reddy: I did a six-month internship in London my junior year in college, but it was during my senior year, when I went to Malawi, that ended up changing the course of my life.
I went on a two-week immersion trip organized by someone fresh out of his two years with the Peace Corps. This trip was very unlike me. I grew up incredibly sheltered and had never done anything remotely adventurous. I'd also never roughed it, I mean, I had never even gone camping.
Jess Ainlay: So what made you agree to the trip?
Suma Reddy: My gut. I just listened to my gut and went.
Jess Ainlay: What happened during those two weeks that changed your life?
Suma Reddy: So, there I was, suddenly on this trip to Malawi. During one part of our trip, we lived with a family in a rural village and worked on a gardening project. It was an eye-opening experience for me. My host family was incredible, but the physical environment was a challenge. I got a huge bug bite in one eye the first week and it was completely swollen. The second week, I got bit in the other eye. And, oh, there were bugs, which I was deathly afraid of at the time (like I said, I was very sheltered). Despite this, I didn’t want to run home. On the contrary. I felt like my eyes were opening for the first time.
We were there just after monsoon season, so it was incredibly green and lush. I was walking alone, the sun was shining and I felt the distance between me, all the way here in Malawi, and my family back home. This was before smartphones and Facebook, and I thought if something happened to someone in my family, I would have no idea. I felt scared being so disconnected from them. But even with that fear, I just had this moment of reckoning, where I realized, “I think I should do this.” The Peace Corps. My gut spoke louder than my fears.
Jess Ainlay: Did you sign up right then and there?
Suma Reddy: The process can be really long, so I came home and applied right away. I only told my sister. I got accepted really quickly and told my family, “I’m going to Mali in three months. Oh, and I’ll be gone for more than two years.”
Jess Ainlay: And just like that, your whole life changed. What did you do in Mali?
Suma Reddy: I lived in Kangaba, a small town 60km south of the capital, Bamako. My main project involved running a career internship program for kids from different villages around Mali that gave them the opportunity to shadow professionals and take public speaking and presentation classes. I also DJ’d a local radio show to educate people on finance, HIV/AIDS and nutrition.
Jess Ainlay: In French?
Suma Reddy: French is the official language, but we did the show in Bambara, the local language, and played a lot of Bob Marley to get people to actually tune in to learn something. I miss speaking it, and will sometimes still speak it here in New York if, for example, I see a cab driver has a last name from Mali. That’s always fun, but the opportunity doesn’t present itself very often.