By Lauren Guido, Eugene Lang College at The New School (Ecuador 2014)
When I think about my first interest in global development a vivid image of my childhood immediately comes to mind. I was eating dinner with my family at our round oak table, when my dad popped the daily dinner question. “Who is more effective in international aid work, Mother Teresa or Princess Diana?” I immediately answered the Saint. She truly immersed herself in her work by dedicating her life to her mission through creating relationships with those she hoped to help. Although, Princess D was still as my idol, my seven year old mind refused to believe that quick visits bookended by monetary donations produced the same amount of change.
Flash forward to 2014, and I’m sitting at a kitchen table covered in magenta oilcloth in the Ecuadorian Amazon. My neighbor Alexandra and I traded stories of each other’s families, days, and dreams in between rounds of fending off intruding chickens and bouts of entertaining her three children. Everyday after my apprenticeship at a cacao co-op her husband presided over in our 300 person community, we conversed, her in English and I in Spanish, learning new words from the other’s native tongue.
On my first visit to Alexandra’s house I was marveled by the dozen or so one foot high swans and baskets she had meretriciously constructed out of paper–designs worthy of winning a blue ribbon at a state fair. We would later spend weeks folding rectangular paper scraps to create my very own swan. Before my bridge year, origami and spending countless hours ‘hanging out’ at a friend’s house are two things I would have steered clear away from, writing them off as not good uses of my little free time. I always favored exercise, exploring, or the art scene as means of bonding with others. Now, I realize if I really desire to build relationships with people I need to remain open and curious to new avenues and lifestyles whatever that may be. Through this vulnerability I learn the most about myself and humanity.
My initial intention for my bridge year was to change the world. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it was going to happen. However, since being dropped off in my community with only a backpack in tow, my perspective of my year and future in development has drastically changed. In fact, rather than changing the world I know, I think about how it can change me.
Last year I was a Fellow through a groundbreaking bridge year program called Global Citizen Year, reimagining the way recent high school graduates transition into college. Having taken a bridge year, I’m now not afraid of the unknown. Instead, I embrace it. Navigating foreign bus routes, learning a new language, and living in vastly different cultures than my own now seem second nature. While many of my friends in college are anxious about their post-graduate futures–I am not. I’ve had wild experiences since then, from a private meeting with a director at USAID Cambodia to visiting an Ashoka Fellow in Mexico. I feel fearless. My bridge year presented me with guiding questions that now drive my academics, career, and life. It imbued me with a thirst for hands on approaches to learning and growth, and I know deeply that I can conquer my dreams.
Like my young self, I still think Mother Teresa was right. The first, and most important, aspect of development and life is to build relationships built on understanding. Once this is achieved, the rest will follow. It’s the most important aspect of development and life. Yes of course, innovative solutions drive development, but behind any successful new technology is the bond between the field worker and community member. Since then a lot has changed, but my passion for international development through personal relationships has only prospered.