IES Abroad: Take us back to the beginning of your study abroad experience. What made you want to study abroad? Why Santiago? How did your journey begin?
Sara Jacques (SJ): I came into college knowing that I wanted to study abroad because it seemed like a really cool opportunity, but I never knew where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do. Then I started a Spanish minor and figured out that I could finish it really easily if I studied abroad in a Spanish-speaking country.
It seemed to me like everyone at Penn State went to Spain or Barcelona, so I started looking for something different. I was between Santiago and Buenos Aires, and the program in Santiago just ended up fitting my interests more. I essentially study social justice, and know that’s what I want to dedicate my life’s work to, so to be able to learn about it in an entirely new context felt like a pretty serendipitous opportunity.
IES Abroad: What advice would you give to others looking to start sustainability programs or efforts in their own place of influence whether that be their school, office, community group, etc.
SJ: I would say definitely work with the community and not just for them because so much of how I understood the problem was through my own cultural lens, which obviously was much different in Chile. The solutions that work at home weren’t really applicable in the new setting. Rules were different, attitudes were different, it was definitely a learning process, and being really open to that learning process I think, is what made the program so successful.
Especially with sustainability programs, it's important to make them...sustainable. If the people who are ultimately living with it don’t have the tools to maintain it once you leave, it’s probably going to flop.
IES Abroad: In reference to all you learned about the effects of climate change while studying abroad in Santiago, you wrote, “My abroad experience made me much more critical of social and cultural norms.” Can you share more specifically about those norms you became critical of?
SJ: In relation to environmental concerns, I want to say that [I became more critical of] the act and process of recycling. In the States, I feel like that's where a lot of our energy is, and what a lot of our media focuses on.
I mean, recently, we’re coming to realize that recycling systems aren’t reliable...but I don’t think we talk enough about why. We really just waste too much, and systems can’t handle it. Recycling can’t be the end all be all...it’s more about reducing our waste. For a long time I was, admittedly, a hopeful recycler and thought if I put my trash in the right bin it would just disappear from the earth and all would be well.
Basically, I say all of this to say, I became more critical of the end point, which made me a lot more conscious about my own waste patterns.
IES Abroad: After recognizing these criticisms, what was your next step personally to address these issues?
SJ: Yeah, so again, instead of relying on recycling, I really focus on reducing and reusing what I have. It’s actually really fun and creative to reuse things that would have otherwise been in the garbage...like as we speak there’s quinoa in a peanut butter jar in my refrigerator.
I never leave my house without a canvas bag and reusable utensils in case I end up having to stop at the store on my way home or eat out. These little things take up literally no space and make such a big difference. Reusable water bottles and coffee cups are definitely staples too.
I just came from lunch with a friend and consciously felt really good about pulling that reusable fork out. And like, it’s just a fork, but if it’s a fork a day that adds up like crazy. It’s the same thing with bags.
There’s no need to create an eternal life for a plastic bag when you can just pull out a weightless one that has less of a chance of breaking. I think a lot of times people don’t do these things because they’re outside routine, but all it really takes is a one-time adjustment and the benefits are tenfold. You wonder how you ever lived before, haha.
IES Abroad: What did you learn about the world through your experiences in Santiago?
SJ: Well when I got to Santiago I really couldn’t speak Spanish. I think I learned a lot about humility and patience on a personal level just trying to navigate that. My empathy expanded enormously, especially in respect to the whole topic of immigration in the States right now.
I was in, arguably, one of the most privileged positions when I was in Santiago. I was a student, I was taken care of by so many people, if I needed to talk to someone in English to hash out my feelings or figure out a problem I was able to do that.
So often people drop everything and come to the U.S. escaping crisis in the best interest of their loved ones, and then on top of that deal with the same daily stressors I experienced, probably to a much higher degree. It’s just like, I would really sit and cry and live with a consistent headache for the first two months because I felt so helpless...and that was an experience with privilege.
I just feel really lucky to be born into the life that I was, and grateful for the perspective these experiences in Santiago gave me.
IES Abroad: What did you learn about yourself?
SJ: Honestly, this sounds kind of corny, but I learned that I'm capable.
It's really easy to get into a grove when you're in comfortable spaces like home or your university, but to be able to do that when you’re thousands of miles from your comfort zone was really awesome. It definitely gave me a new sense of confidence, which bled into every other aspect of my life from school to work to relationships. I feel like I’m more empowered to share perspective and be more genuinely myself.
IES Abroad: Do you have some examples of when you felt that you were growing in your confidence while studying abroad?
SJ: At the end of the semester, I met with a woman at the Chilean Ministry of Environment, Jessica Ulloa Mendieta [who is also an IES Abroad faculty member]. I remember pulling up to the office and seeing the government crest outside and literally saying out loud to myself, “how on earth did I get here?”
I literally sat with a government official talking about environmental concerns, in Spanish, for an hour. We looked through community plans and talked about programs. I felt so empowered. None of that was in my original plan when I came to Santiago.
IES Abroad: That's super cool. How did you end up in that situation? How did you make the connection with the government official in the ministry?
SJ: She was teaching a course for IES Abroad to another program. And Maricarmen [the IES Abroad Santiago Center Director] told me that she wanted to introduce us based on my interests. I didn’t know who she was at all, but of course I said yes.
I assumed I was just going to meet in her university faculty office or something, and then when I got to the address, and it was literally the Ministry of the Environment, I was like, "Am I in the right place?” I double checked the address.
Like I said, she was talking to me about a lot of planning and programs, and showing me the supporting materials. To be able to read and understand these things in Spanish was just so surreal. Honestly, even to think about this now it’s crazy...I can’t believe that happened.
IES Abroad: How has your study abroad experience shaped your future? What’s next for you in the short-term? What kind of world do you want to help build in the long-term?
SJ: So in the short-term, I actually just got accepted to teach in Spain for the 2020-2021 school year which I’m really excited about. I absolutely fell in love with the Spanish language, and what it taught me about myself. I really want to develop that a little more and have some more international experience before I enter the “real world.”
Learning a second language for me was like escaping the logic I’ve always lived my life in...it’s hard to explain but I just really loved how it challenged me to think and speak in different ways. Then you internalize that and you just feel different.
As for long-term, I'm really invested in social justice so that’s what I want to do in some capacity. I feel like being on the social justice program in Santiago really opened my eyes to different ways that that's possible. I learned so much about economic policy and how that contributes to inequality...like I had never known anything about the Washington Consensus.
I was never all that invested in environmentalism until my time abroad either, so now that that’s really central to who I am. I’m thinking that eventually I want to work toward environmental justice. I love communicating and storytelling, and I’m grateful that can take me in so many different exciting directions. I don’t know, we’ll see!
IES Abroad: Thinking about yourself and your peers who will be graduating in the next year or so, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges you anticipate facing?
SJ: I feel like, obviously, I need to say climate change! Yeah, it's unprecedented what's happening right now. And the fact that money and power are overriding these serious existential threats is super unsettling. It would feel defenseless if there weren’t so many little things we can do as individuals.
Your voice matters. Being knowledgeable and having conversations matters. Voting matters. Voting with your dollar matters.
IES Abroad: What do you think are the most important skills and qualities you will all need to carry with you to face these challenges?
SJ: Critical thinking is really important. When we're just constantly fed information and taught to regurgitate it rather than question it, it's detrimental to our progress.
I think we need to be more cautious about the information we consume, the things we say, and the implications they have. I think just being more mindful and conscious about how we live our day-to-day lives, rather than being so hung up on an end game can go a long way in creating a better world.
IES Abroad: Who is a peer that inspires you; whether that’s someone you know personally or have looked up to from afar?
SJ: I loved this question. My best friend Allie at school inspires me so much. She is the most democratic – by definition – person I know. The way she approaches problems and challenges herself to question her own beliefs seriously inspires me. She challenges me to think outside of boxes I don’t realize I’m in, and be more empathetic, especially when it’s hard to be.
It’s so easy for us to only be around people who have our same beliefs and don’t make us question ourselves. While Allie is probably one of those people to me, she actively keeps me aware of it. We have critical conversations and play devil's advocate for fun. I feel like our friendship is really holistic and I feel so lucky to have a person like her in my life. She’s really helped me grow on all fronts.
She’s also the person who sparked my interest in environmentalism in the first place now that I think about it. I wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it wasn’t for her influence in my life. She’s just such a good person. So wise beyond her years. Having someone like that on your side is a crazy blessing.
IES Abroad: If you could give one piece of advice to future study abroad students, what would it be?
SJ: Go somewhere different! Go somewhere that's going to challenge you to leave your comfort zone. I mean, studying abroad anywhere forces you to leave your comfort zone, but I picked Santiago because I knew it would be hard. Now that I look back, none of the hardships are how I remember my time abroad. It was literally the most beautiful, amazing, enlightening, rewarding experience of my life, and as cliche as it sounds...made me who I am today. It was the best stress, and I feel like after that, I can really do anything.