Student Voices – Being a First-Generation Student Abroad

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IES Abroad
July 12, 2017

At IES Abroad, our students are as unique as the programs in which they study. That’s why we’re happy to introduce Yesenia Ayala (Santiago Spring 2017 | Grinnell College), a first-generation college student who recently completed an extensive service learning experience while studying abroad in Santiago.

A first-generation college student and daughter of Salvadorian immigrants, Yesenia was born in Los Angeles but raised in El Salvador until the age of nine, whereafter she returned to the states. “As I encountered difficulties transitioning to the United States education system at a really young age, I later realized that parental support is essential in immigrant communities.“ Yesenia said.

Since then, Yesenia has been committed to immigrant parents being involved in their students’ education. As a Posse merit-based scholarship student at Grinnell, Yesenia became involved with the local not-for-profit Al Éxito, which focuses on empowering, mentoring, and supporting Latino youth to strive for higher education. Through her work there, Yesenia recruited 20 volunteers to help with implementing parent programming and conducting workshops in nine communities throughout the state of Iowa. Her efforts led to the creation of an official club Crecemos Unidos on Grinnell’s campus, and led to Yesenia’s recognition at the White House as part of the Champions of Change Program.

While studying abroad on our Santiago - Politics, Social Justice & Language Program, Yesenia continued to pursue her interests in education equity and social change through a service learning experience at Fundación Belén Educa, an organization whose mission is to provide quality education to children and youth in low-income sectors.

During her semester abroad, Yesenia learned that she was awarded the James C. Randall Fellowship, which allowed her to continue working with Fundación Belén Educa for an additional five weeks after her program ended. “I am very passionate about this work and feel that staying longer in Chile working with a not-for-profit would allow my study abroad experience to become a very interesting one.” Yesenia said.

As if all the above accomplishments weren’t enough, Yesenia was recently awarded the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, a highly competitive federal scholarship granted to U.S. college juniors for demonstrated leadership potential and a commitment to public service. After being named as one of the 2017 Truman Scholars, Yesenia is more determined than ever to return to Grinnell and to continue inspiring her community.

Our Diversity Relations Manager Hernando Sevilla-Garcia recently had the chance to sit down and chat with Yesenia in Santiago. Hear what Yesenia had to say about studying abroad in Santiago, being a first-generation student abroad, and more.

IES Abroad: How has being the daughter of Salvadorian immigrants shaped your identity?

Yesenia Ayala: Growing up, I always felt confused about why I was growing up between two very different cultures. On one hand, at home I encountered what it meant to be Salvadorian, with the food, music, and traditions that my family would enjoy. Then on another hand, I was growing up in the American education system where I was a first-generation student navigating this system that was not only foreign to my family, but to myself.

IES Abroad: What is it like to be a first-generation college student studying abroad?

YA: It’s a journey. First of all, I never imagined I would have the opportunity to ever do this. It is quite a new experience, but something I would not change for anything.

There are challenges as it is something very new for me and my family, but I think it’s one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I am proud to be a first-gen student abroad and having the opportunity to set a precedent for my family members and future generations.

IES Abroad: What have been some of the challenges living in Santiago? How about your most rewarding experience?

YA: I think one of the challenges of being in Santiago is being very far away from home and having to navigate adjusting to the daily life here. For instance, the food schedule and transportation system is very different.

I can name multiple rewarding experiences, but I think the most rewarding has been getting close with my host family. They have been key to my wonderful experience as I felt really part of their family and have been able to learn so much about Chile through them.

IES Abroad: What has been your defining study abroad moment? The moment when everything clicked for you, going well, felt like a local student, etc.

YA: It was at my homestay. They are some of the warmest people I have ever met, and we immediately formed a bond. I truly feel like home not only at my homestay, but also in Santiago. The initial adjustment to a new city is always hard, but having a loving, friendly, and caring family is amazing.

IES Abroad: What would you tell other Latino students who are on the fence about studying abroad?

YA: Do it. Honestly, being abroad opens your horizons, challenges you to get out of your comfort zone, and makes you conscious of the importance of multicultural experience even as a person of color. I know that money might be an issue, but look for scholarships, as there is a lot of money out there for students of color to go abroad. It may feel like a risk, but honestly do it, it’s worth it. I can say the experience can be life changing.

IES Abroad: What role have your parents played in helping you get abroad?

YA: Mami y Papi, gracias. No hay palabras que puedan expresar que agradecida estoy con ustedes. You have pushed me to reach my full potential and have encouraged me to reach for the stars. Thank you for making it possible for me to go abroad with your unconditional support. Each day, I wake up to make you proud and to prove to you all your sacrifices have definitely changed my life for good and opened up so many opportunities.

IES Abroad: How has your study abroad experience impacted your plans for the future?

YA: I want to change the world. I think that is possible through education, and studying abroad here in Santiago with IES Abroad has given me the opportunity to work with marginalized communities and through education I have personally seen the impact it can have.

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