Two years ago, Ms Ayu Kartika Dewi quit her job as a manager at Procter & Gamble in Singapore, where she had lived for three years, to teach for a year.

It took six hours by plane from Jakarta to Ternate, eight hours on a ferry and another 90 minutes by road before the Indonesian found herself in Papaloang - population 200, main industry brown sugar. The remote village is in South Halmahera district, North Maluku province.

She was surprised to find nine-year-olds who could hardly read, books in the school library still in plastic wrap, and boys and girls skipping school.

'Others could read, but did not understand what they read. They might as well have been reading Dutch,' the 29-year-old recalls of the place where Bahasa Indonesia was rarely spoken.

The marketing management graduate from Surabaya's Airlangga University found herself using games, songs and creative methods ranging from field trips to first aid kits to stoke the pupils' interest. Soon, the children were hanging out at her house after school.

Ms Ayu is one of 51 young professionals who in November 2010 fanned out to far-flung districts as part of a movement started by academic Anies Baswedan.

Its aim: to bridge the country's development gap by inspiring primary school pupils in the most-deprived districts to dream big.

Called Indonesia Mengajar (Indonesia Teaching), it also aims to groom future leaders who grew up in middle-class homes in cities, by giving them a ground-up understanding of the challenges facing their country's outlying districts.

Its rapid success gives many hope that despite the country's myriad of problems, there are those willing to make sacrifices for a larger cause.

'You don't have to spend anything, but get these top graduates to places where government teachers don't want to go,' says Dr Baswedan, 43, president of Paramadina University in Jakarta.

'We have seen so much negativity out there, that the presence of these young teachers makes me think: We have a stock of good people, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.'

Graduates from top universities compete to get accepted, writing several essays before being shortlisted for interviews. Ms Ayu was among 1,383 applicants. To date, 26,363 have applied for 300 places in the programme.

Finalists undergo two months of intensive leadership and teacher training, that includes jungle survival skills.

Volunteers serve in 134 villages in 16 districts. The villages get a teacher a year for five years.

The goal is not to take top graduates out of their jobs to teach, though some may, but to give them a chance to inspire others and test their limits, says Dr Baswedan.

As a leaflet for applicants puts it: Teach for a year, inspire for a lifetime.

'Once these young teachers go out, villagers start asking how they can have a group of young people just like them. They start thinking of the importance of schools and human capital... this is very different from someone from Jakarta going and giving a speech,' he says.

But laying the groundwork took several months: local officials felt the project was too good to be true. Schoolteachers had to be assured that the volunteers were not there to take their jobs.

Boosting the morale of students was a big challenge.

Volunteer Rahmat Danu Andika, 25, who taught in the village of Pelita in South Halmahera, recalls how parents were quick to believe their children were less capable.

The Bandung Institute of Technology graduate who had worked in a mining company in Kalimantan started preparing his pupils for a science olympiad - and two made it to the semi-finals.

'That showed the pupils they could be as good as those living in towns,' he says.

Ms Ayu had another deep-rooted myth to dispel.

She was alarmed that communal violence in the area a decade ago had instilled suspicions towards Christians in the all-Muslim village, and suggested a Christian volunteer take her place.

'Their world view was very black-and-white. I wanted them to know a nice Christian, so when there's a conflict, they will say they don't want to fight any more,' she says.

Concerned district officials asked if they could house him in a Christian village, but she explained that it would defeat the purpose, and shared stories of Muslim volunteers teaching in Christian villages.

That struck a chord. When her replacement Benediktus Dwi Kristiantoro, known as Nino, arrived last November, the village's three religious teachers welcomed him and made a point to tell his host family to take care of him.

Ms Ayu's year was meaningful in another way: She met her husband in South Halmahera, where he was posted as an education ministry official, and the couple got married on returning to Jakarta last November.

Dr Baswedan recounts how local officials in Fakfak, West Papua, were receptive to the fact that the volunteers were there not to make money or govern, but to empower.

'It's a different chemistry, and it's what makes many people in these areas feel we're one nation.'

Adds Ms Ayu, who now works at the presidential work delivery unit: 'I knew governing Indonesia is a big challenge, but only realised what it meant in my one year out. For many out there, going to Jakarta is as distant as us going to London.'