SIT Study Abroad alumna Chelsea Bhajan to address stigma around disability in Indonesia

January 9th, 2018   |   SIT Study Abroad

School for International Training and World Learning have named SIT Study Abroad alumna Chelsea Bhajan as the next Alice Rowan Swanson Fellow. She plans to return to Indonesia to help remove the stigma around people with disabilities.

Chelsea, of Trinidad and Tobago, is a spring 2014 alumna of SIT Study Abroad’s Indonesia: Arts, Religion, and Social Change program. She graduated from Washington University of St. Louis in 2015 with a BA in anthropology and a minor in Japanese studies. Chelsea’s fellowship project, “Different but not Deficient,” is aimed at helping elementary-aged schoolchildren in Indonesia understand the differences in how people with disabilities live.

The Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship provides support for SIT Study Abroad and International Honors program alumni to return to their study abroad host country to pursue projects that advance human rights.

The family of Alice Rowan Swanson created the fellowship in her name as a living tribute to the Amherst College alumna, who died in a 2008 bicycle accident in Washington, D.C. Rowan Swanson was inspired to work in international development and human rights during her SIT Study Abroad experience in Nicaragua in 2006.

Inspired to create change

Chelsea saw the realities that people with disabilities face while traveling through Indonesia with SIT Study Abroad. “A man left to bathe with ducks; a girl kept in a cage; and a man dragging his body up a hill” were some of the images that stayed with her. She also learned how awareness can make a difference when she saw “a little boy with Down Syndrome gathered alongside the rest of his family as he laughed and sang along to a video,” she recalls.

Although Indonesia has made great strides in creating policies to reduce discrimination against disabled people, the government estimates that nearly 25 percent of those with disabilities are living in extreme poverty, Chelsea discovered. To continue making progress, she believes Indonesians must look to inclusion to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and increase opportunities for those who are differently abled.

“Lasting change” starts with the young

Chelsea plans to work with Project Child Indonesia – an NGO in Yogyakarta that provides alternative education for schoolchildren in rural communities – to create a disability awareness program in their schools. The curriculum will include interactive activities such as role play, stories, video-making, and excursions. To assess the children’s understanding of the content, they will create posters to be shared throughout their schools and villages. To ensure that her project will be sustainable, Chelsea will design workshops to train volunteers to continue the curriculum.

She chose to target children in her project because “lasting change only comes about if younger generations start it,” she said. “Encouraging a different perspective in youth is a small step toward changing the mindset of a wider group of people, but it is the best chance to have lasting impact.”

She said she was drawn to SIT’s Indonesia program because of the immersive, hands-on approach, and felt the program would advance her anthropology studies. After graduation, she worked as a math teacher in an Afro-centric St. Louis public school – an experience that highlighted for her the importance of integrating culture into educational curricula, programming, and initiatives.

Chelsea later received a Global Community Service Fellowship through Volunteers in Asia to teach English with the NGO Yayasan Dian Desa (“light of the village”). In the future, she plans to go into social work with an international focus or international development with a social work approach.

The next round of Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship applications will be reviewed in March 2018. To learn more about the fellowship, eligibility, or to download an application, visit the Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship web page.