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Why One BC Graduate Traveled Halfway Around the World…

Gardens, as Rudyard Kipling once noted, are not made by sitting in the shade. Nor is much of anything else, come to think of it, especially when it comes to helping improve the lot of people less fortunate or privileged than yourself. Nothing seems to work as thoroughly as abandoning the ease and comfort of the shade and just pitching in.

Which is what one recent Bridgewater graduate did, in the very land that helped make Rudyard Kipling a household name – India – and in a most unusual way.

Photo of J.J. Krehbiel

In the spring of 2013, sociology and international studies major J.J. Krehbiel of McPherson, Kan., was accepted as a Kennedy Center Fellow. As part of his fellowship, Krehbiel, upon graduation, would receive financial assistance to serve as a volunteer in Bangalore, India. But Krehbiel wouldn't be building houses or repairing roads or laying water pipes or doing any of the kinds of projects that are usually associated with overseas humanitarian work.

Krehbiel would teach the art of acting to economically and socially disadvantaged youth.

Krehbiel, who was very active in Bridgewater's theater program, was one of only five students in the United States to receive the fellowship, which covered the costs associated with his work with Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP). He was selected based on ASTEP's criteria of exemplary leadership and dedication to using the arts to empower communities.

Even though Krehbiel had, as a junior, spent a semester in Chennai, India, and enjoyed it, he was still nervous about this new venture. He spent the months between graduation and his departure in August boning up on teaching and theater education, gleaning much from the books Theater Games for the Classroom and Teach Like a Champion.

In the last week of August, Krehbiel left for India and by early September was settling in at Shanti Bhavan, a school near Bangalore.

"The school provides a free, quality education for children who come from very poor socio-economic backgrounds," Krehbiel said. "Unfortunately, when the global financial crisis hit in 2008, the school saw a drastic decrease in donations and had to let many teachers go. Since then, volunteers have been coming to the school to teach academic classes."

During his first week at Shanti Bhavan, Krehbiel first shadowed other volunteers to observe how they handled their classes, and then dove into the experience for himself. He started out teaching English, literature, persuasive writing and dance classes.

Photo of J.J. Krehbiel

"So I know many of you are worried about my dancing skills," he wrote to his friends in an email on Sept. 3, "but luckily the fifth-grade dance class is mainly a break for the kids who otherwise have a very long day of classes. For dance, I'm mostly teaching them some goofy camp songs."

Overall, he said, the transition to teaching was easier than he thought it would be, and that his students were "very sweet and enjoyable to work with."

Later in September, Krehbiel and eight visiting ASTEP volunteers organized Art Camp, which comprised a week of theater, film, music and dance classes. He helped the younger kids – the "spazzes," as he dubbed them – perform the Pyramus and Thisby scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

"I was a little nervous about how they would deal with the Shakespearean language, but they handled it like champs and did great with memorizing their lines," he said.

By October, Krehbiel's friends were receiving news via email about the volunteer versus student basketball game, highlighting the fact that life for the Kansas native wasn't all work and no fun. Except for losing, that is. The students won by two points, 58-56, which meant that Krehbiel would have to make good on a bet he made and shave his beard.

In his 11th grade English class, he and his students studied "Phenomenal Woman," a poem by Maya Angelou. All other poems studied in the classes were written by Romantic-era Europeans, to which the students had a hard time relating, so their examination of Angelou's poem was, according to Krehbiel, especially rewarding for them. Another volunteer who had interviewed Angelou spoke to the class, and the ensuing discussion about activism, civil rights and feminism was lively and engaging.

Photo of Students

"I had never seen them as engaged in class as they were when we talked about Maya Angelou," Krehbiel said. "I'm hoping her personal story will inspire some of the students, especially the girls, to persevere through the hardships that they undoubtedly will have to go through."

Krehbiel's sojourn extended through early December. His last week in India was a blur of activity that included both work – grading exams – and celebrating. The school's Christmas party was held a week earlier than usual so that Krehbiel could experience it before he left. After an evening of caroling, games and watching movies, Krehbiel quietly slipped out of the school at 3 a.m. to go to the airport.

"In a way I felt really lucky to be leaving in the middle of the night, especially after a day of partying," said Krehbiel. "It made saying goodbye a little easier."

Before returning to Kansas, Krehbiel visited relatives in London. He said while it was good to be back in a large city where no one knew your name, he suddenly experienced pangs of longing when he took a tour of Shakespeare Globe Theatre.

"I wish I could have had all those students with me during the tour," he said. "They would have loved it."

Krehbiel's next adventure is a stint with the Peace Corps. In May 2014 he left for Ecuador to begin training as a health extension volunteer. He will live and work at the community level, promoting awareness of health education needs and assisting local leaders with health, nutrition and sanitation education.

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