Yesenia Ayala

Global Citizen of the Year Award • 2017 Winner

IES Abroad Program: Santiago - Politics, Social Justice & Language

College / University: Grinnell, Class of 2018

Major: Sociology and Spanish

Hometown: Panorama City, California

Yesenia's Story

When I decided to study abroad in Santiago in the spring of 2017, I knew that I wanted to get involved and learn about the community that was going to be home for the next couple of months. During my college career, education inequity issues and college access for low-income students fueled me to get involved and work with organizations that seek to make an impact to change the reality of our nation’s inequity in education. My experience navigating the U.S. education system as a Latina first generation college student gave me the opportunity to understand the experience of many groups and engage with organizations that work with students who face these challenges. Through my work with organizations like Al Exito and Breakthrough that work toward these mission statements in the United States, I was able to be part of organizations that assisted and guided low-income students of color to obtain access to higher education. Working with these organizations have been a key part of my college experience as they have allowed me to merge my personal experience, passion, and classroom learnings to hands-on experience. Therefore, prior to choosing my study abroad program, I knew that an internship was essential. It would not only put me in a position to interact with the local community, but also give both of us the opportunity to learn from each other. 

Through the Politics, Social Justice, and Language program in Santiago, I worked with Belen Educa, a Chilean non-profit organization that serves low-income communities in Santiago by providing students with a high-quality education. As I worked at one of their schools, Colegio Alberto Hurtado, I assisted the English Department in the classroom, as well as helped with events, programming, and administrative work. My journey at this school completely changed my perspectives on what education looks like internationally and expanded my mind.  Every interaction with the teachers, students, and administrators made me aware of why this type of work is essential globally. The first and foremost important lesson I learned with the group of 7-12th grade students was the importance of cultural competency no matter your background or race. Therefore, my mindset consisted of learning about the community first and allowing them to guide me in the different ways I could support their needs. I strongly believe that working with communities creates a bigger impact than working for them. I was fortunate that the students and teachers allowed me to share my personal experiences and have them guide me on the different ways we could work together to learn from each other.

When I think of what changing the world looks like, I remember my personal experience. I had several people believe in me and guide me through my educational journey which completely changed my world for the better. I think that my experience working at Colegio Alberto Hurtado taught me that although I only worked with 7-12th grade and not the whole school, it takes planting a seed in one person to create change. I’m hopeful that the students were able to take lessons from our conversations in the same way I did. I hope that in one way during our individual tutoring, class sessions, and daily interactions I was able to change their perspective and create motivation in their lives in the same way they did with my life.

The tools and skills I gained during this experience allowed me to continue this work back in my local community. I presented my experience abroad working at the school to students and families at my college campus, and therefore engage others on the importance of this work locally, nationally, and globally. I currently co-lead a mentoring and tutoring program at the Meskwaki Settlement School in South Tama, Iowa. As a result of the cumulative work with several organizations, I am in the process of publishing a cultural competent college access mentoring curriculum that different organizations can use. In addition, working with Belen Educa encouraged my interest to work with education policy and make it into my career. My time abroad would have not been the same without this experience. It not only changed me personally and academically, but also made me excited for my career path.