“Communities Know Best:” Our Global Citizen of the Year Recipients Reflect on Their Community Engagement While Abroad

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IES Abroad
December 4, 2019

We're always amazed by how fully our students embrace their time abroad. I'm sure you've heard it before, but study abroad is a life-changing experience that continues to sink in long after you've returned home. That's why we created the the Global Citizen of the Year Award, so returning students have an opportunity to share and celebrate their unique perspective on how their time abroad continues to influence their lives. We caught up with our Global Citizen of the Year Awardees one year later to hear about the most valubale lessons they learned, why you should care about the world, and what they're up to today.


“If the community is not leading or not involved, then you’ve spent your effort on something they don’t really need.”

This is the biggest lesson Marie Salem has for students engaging in service work while abroad. In Marie’s experience, change doesn’t happen unless you follow those who know best: the community members themselves. She volunteered with a maternal health organization during her time in Buenos Aires. Marie emphasizes that lasting change isn’t made when an outsider just brings new ideas to a community, but rather when the community leads the charge. “At the end of the day, they know their own community, they know their own population.”  

Marie Salem (IES Abroad Buenos Aires, Spring 2017 | University of California-Berkeley | Global Citizen of the Year Finalist)

Learn More About Marie's Time In Buenos Aires 

Dayna Mathew smiling at the camera

“Recognizing all of the opportunities one has in comparison to others is a key step in recognizing both privilege and prejudice.”

A community-first approach, even if it means personally taking a step back, is something that Dayna Mathew recognized as well. Dayna spent a summer doing an IES Internship in London with Working Chance, a recruitment consultancy for women who are transitioning out of incarceration, or are survivors of domestic violence. “Doing things that make you feel uncomfortable is what you have to do to gain perspective and learn other people’s stories.”

Since returning from her time abroad, Dayna has enrolled in the JDMA program at the University of Cincinnati, which allows her to receive a law degree in conjunction with a Master’s degree in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She would like to eventually work for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the Women’s Rights division.

Dayna Mathew (IES Internships London, Summer 2017 | Loyola University Chicago | Global Citizen of the Year Finalist)

Learn More About Dayna's Time In London 

Kathleen Blehl smiling

“We need a million people doing it imperfectly, making small changes every day.”

This is the advice Kathleen Blehl has for people who are trying to decrease their carbon footprint by going vegan or zero-waste, like she did during her second semester in Milan. “Maybe you’re having meatless Mondays, or maybe you shop from the bulk section at the grocery store once a week. I believe these changes, when added up, make a far greater impact than having a small community of people who are doing it perfectly.” For her, the importance of listening and participating in the conversations around her was crucial to understanding her impact on the environment.

Kathleen Blehl (IES Abroad Milan, Academic Year 2016-17 | Villanova University | Global Citizen of the Year Finalist)

Learn More About Kathleen's Time In Milan


"I realized that my purpose in this world is to provide more opportunities for people just like others have provided opportunities for me."

As a Latina student, Yesenia Ayala believed she would easily find common ground with her Chilean students at Belén Educa in Santiago, but she quickly gained perspective. "Cultural competency is having an opportunity to interact and build awareness of how somebody else's culture can be different from what you have experienced on a daily basis and the way that you were raised." 

After returning home and graduating, she participated in a year-long fellowship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucaus Institute where her on-the-ground work in Santiago came into play and was essential to her success. 

Yesenia Ayala (IES Abroad Santiago, Spring 2017 | Grinnell College | Global Citizen of the Year Winner)

Learn More About Yesenia's Time In Santiago

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