A Passion for Education: Thoughts on Global Citizenship with Yesenia Ayala

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Yesenia Ayala (IES Abroad Santiago, Spring 2017 | Grinnell College) has a heart for students. The support of others in her own higher education experience inspired her to seek an internship at a secondary school while she studied abroad in Santiago, Chile. Her experience working with the students at Belén Educa enlargened her worldview and exposed to her some of her own assumptions about others who came from what appeared to be a similar background as her at first.

Yesenia's commitment to supporting the education of others and learning about the world herself along the way made her more than deserving of our 2017 Global Citizen of the Year award.

We caught up with Yesenia a couple years later to hear how her work in a Chilean classroom evolved into policy work on Capitol Hill in D.C.

IES Abroad: The theme of the 2019 Global Citizen of the Year application is all about finding your place in the woHow did studying abroad and interning in Santiago help you find yours?

Yesenia Ayala (YA): When I think of finding my place in the world, I think a lot about purpose. When I was studying abroad, I became more conscious of everything that I've lived and experienced here in the U.S. And I'm thinking a lot about it, too, in terms of the opportunities through access to higher education and how that led for me to have the opportunity to be abroad.

Being with my host family in Santiago and working with the community in Santiago definitely opened up my mind to how some issues can be global, but also how grateful I was for certain opportunities that I have received.

I think that having an internship in the education space in Santiago definitely made me more conscious and more aware of the experiences that I had lived here.

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IES Abroad: How did being named IES Abroad’s Global Citizen of the Year Winner change you and/or the way you view your place in the global community?

YA: I think the award came with responsibility as well. I think that once I was named Global Citizen of the Year, I really started to reflect a lot on what that meant.

And especially, I think, coming back to the U.S... it translated into something bigger. How did I want to continue the work that I was doing abroad? And how did I want to intertwine that, not just in my personal life, but also my professional career and as a human being? What educational opportunities did I want to, hopefully, bring to others? 

I felt like I had more responsibility after receving the award to really think about what that award actually means for myself moving forward.

IES Abroad: You’ve shared before that one of the motivators for you was to make a difference in your local community while studying abroad. Did this dedication to bettering the world play a part in how you found your study abroad program?

YA: Yes, most definitely. I think that it goes back to that first question you asked. I realized that my purpose in this world is to provide more opportunities for people just like others have provided opportunities for me.

When I was abroad I knew that it was very important for me to be able to build some relationships, to feel part of something bigger than just existing there. I was doing the things that everybody talks about which is like you travel, you're there, you're experiencing new culture. But I realized that when you want to make the world a better place, it was really important for me to actually fully engage with the people, especially with the students that I was working with, and actually have one-on-one conversations, learn about their educational system and their structure, and how that affects students directly. 

I think that coming in with that purpose and that mindset really did help me actually be able to build those genuine relationships. When I think of commitment to making the world a better place, I think of that commitment to who is your work affecting directly, and I think students are the center of that for me.

And like I said in my Global Citizen application, it takes one—it took one person to change my life, so I feel that, hopefully, I have the opportunity to touch one person's life that, hopefully, can then shape a lot more people's lives.

“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.”

IES Abroad: You mentioned in your Global Citizen of the Year personal statement, “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.” What a powerful learning to experience firsthand! In your eyes, what does cultural competency mean? What are some ways individuals can develop this skill?

YA: 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. It's also being very respectful and letting the other person or the other group be the one to guide and lead a lot of the work that you are assisting in. Because I think that there are many issues when someone comes in—especially globally—I feel like it's very disrespectful for an outsider to come into a community and start telling a community what's better and best for them. 

A huge part of cultural competency is actually respecting that space and giving the community an opportunity to be the ones guiding any effort and being the ones actually making the decisions if they need or want support from that person. Part of developing that awareness is also respecting when maybe you are not needed. Maybe you are not the appropriate person to be in this space. And I think that, like I said, through developing a lot of awareness and having respect is a key component of that.

As a person of color, as a first-generation Latina—my parents are from El Salvador, and I grew up in the States—I think that experience really did make me think that I would be able to relate in many ways to the students that I was working with in Santiago. But I realized that I also have a lot of privilege as a Salvadorian-American growing up in the United States and having access to a lot of resources. I had a very different lived experience from the students I was working with. I actually had no idea what their experience was... It was a harder learning process for me because I came with that mindset that I understood their background and I understood their stories.

It took a lot of time, and it also took a lot of me backing up and respecting their space before they were actually able to trust me. I think that that's very important to do when you are thinking of cultural competency, just because I had certain experiences didn't necessarily mean that everybody who maybe comes from a similar background has had the same experience.


IES Abroad: Now, two years after studying abroad and a year after winning the Global Citizen of the Year Award, what do you reflect on retrospectively? Anything you’ve been able to learn or process differently now that some time has passed?

YA: Yes. I actually noticed that my study abroad experience, especially working with Belén Educa and working with Chilean students, has been really crucial in understanding a lot of the educational factors, programs, and experiences here in the U.S. When I think about that experience, there's a lot of key components of the structure of organizations and the opportunity to learn from the teachers about how the bureaucracy works in Santiago and understanding how certain policies historically disproportionately have affected people. And then being able to make a comparison and realize that some things are very different or very similar to what we experience here.

I think that having had the experience to actually do that in a space that's isolated from my everyday life definitely has me thinking a lot about the students, those stories, and it's having such a huge effect in my life now. I still engage with these conversations with my host family, because they have become family to me. We talk very frequently. I still keep in touch with people that I worked with when I was there with Belén Educa. And I think the most powerful connections, I still keep in touch with students who were 12th graders and now are in college in Chile. We engage in conversations, and I think that they really have shaped the way that I think about certain systems and certain structures.

IES Abroad: Is there anything you would do differently in your study abroad experience if you could?

YA: Yes. I definitely wish that—I guess in the educational part, I wish I had expanded and actually taken classes at the other university partner that IES Abroad had. And I know that that option was given to us, but I guess we didn't really think about the benefits that it would have. One of the institutions that was partners with IES Abroad, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, was where I took a couple of course. But then at the Universidad Chile, which is the other very well known institution in Chile, there was more opportunity to first-hand experience the education or at least be able to engage in it. I think there would have been more opportunities to learn about the organizing aspect and how that interacted with government structures.

Another thing I wish I really did while I was at Belén Educa was actually meet up and have coffee or dinners or lunches, or just have other meetings with other teachers in the school. I interacted a lot with the leaders of each division because I was working for the head of the English department. But I was working a lot with the English teachers, but I really wish that I had interacted with the administrators as well. I wish I had had more opportunity to pick their brain... I'm very curious about the different perceptions and the different ways that teachers view certain things that were happening at the school and in the country.

And then, I really wish I had picked people's brain when I went to the south of Chile and the north of Chile and see how those educational systems are different or similar to what students were experiencing in the city. I think going to school in the rural Midwest, and then growing up in an urban area, I became more aware how different they were, so I really wish I have had an opportunity to do that while I was there.

IES Abroad: In your own words, why should future study abroad students care about the world?

YA: The world is interconnected, and I think that you see patterns. I think that we are in a time period where people are connected because of developments in technology, because of developments in a lot of relationships among countries. And I feel that you can not live in your own little world. Students should care because it's just going to get more and more interconnected, and I think there could be so many benefits for people to actually learn about each other and engage with each other to be able to make substantial change.

“Many people before us have fought for change and have been advocates for change. They have paved the path for others to continue on with that.”

IES Abroad: What advice would you share with others looking to make a difference in the world?

YA: Pace yourself. I think that I realized that when I was in undergrad. I was learning a lot about structures. I was putting academic language to my personal lived experiences and experiences of others who came from similar backgrounds to me and those who did not come from similar backgrounds as me.

I think that a lot of the time activism is incited as a result of being frustrated by a system, of being frustrated by seeing something that is done unfairly. But I think it's very important to also know that change comes in many sizes, and change is a process. Many people before us have fought for change and have been advocates for change. They have paved the path for others to continue on with that. There are opportunities to be able to engage with others and make a bigger impact, but also know that we also need to look at change in two ways, immediate change and systemic change. If you're working towards systemic change, it's slower. So it's very important to pace yourself because I think there's times and time periods and space for those.

IES Abroad: You shared that working with Belén Educa encouraged you to continue pursuing a career in education policy. What has that looked like for you so far?

YA: I was doing a lot of on-the-ground work with different organizations in the United States while I was in undergrad and leading a lot of workshops on college access, meeting with parents, and developing curriculum for mentoring programs. I was seeing it a lot in terms of the lens of on-the-ground work and how important and crucial that is.

It wasn't until I studied abroad and was working with Belén Educa where I realized the bigger picture of government structure and policy and the impact that policy has on communities. I still remember, I think it was the first couple of weeks, I engaged with my host family on this, and then I realized, "Oh, this is education policy. How come I've never really been interested in this?" My life changed from there.

When I came back to the States, was awarded the Truman Scholarship, and I had access to opportunities in the policy space. I definitely was shaped from that experience. Moving forward, I realized my heart is in higher education policy, especially for students in higher education. I was able to do a fellowship, right when I graduated, for a year with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, and I was able to work on the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions under Senator Murray and working on higher education issues.

Now that I think about it, just within that year, there's so much learning that I did when I studied abroad, when I came back doing on-the-ground work, and when I was able to get my hands on actual policy. Now I'm finished the fellowship, and I'm currently working for the Postsecondary National Policy Institute. PNPI is a professional development organization that tries to set the foundation for current and prospective policymakers in the higher education space. We work with Democrats and Republicans to bring a lot of this fact-based information. I think that being in this space definitely has taught me a lot about the essence of fact and data.


IES Abroad: Last time we talked, you shared a new venture you’re working on, @firstcafecito. Tell us more about that—we’re excited for you! What do you envision is next?

YA: Firstcafecito is an Instagram page dedicated to sharing resources, advice, and information for first generation college students and graduates. I envision this page to be a space where first generation college students can find words of advice from people who have gone through higher education. I strongly believe that this needs to be a space with many different voices as the first generation college student experience varies for everyone. 

Where will you find your place in the world? Read about 6 Ways to Discover Your Global Citizenship While Studying Abroad.

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