About the Author
George Arenas studies Economics and recently completed his second year at Harvard College. He is a proud member of Dunster House and is currently taking time away from Harvard to explore mathematics education in the Dominican Republic.
Connecting to Chile
A Virtual Summer with Santiago
I didn’t expect to be waking up in my childhood bedroom in southwestern Ohio on May 31. In fact, I had expected to be far away from my hometown, living in Santiago, Chile, completing an internship with Ashoka Chile, the Santiago branch of the world’s largest organization for developing social entrepreneurship.
Yet, as with most things since March of this year, the pandemic caused an uprooting of plans and a change in expectations. Miraculously, I was still able to connect with Chile even though I was not there in person.
I remember how excited I was when I found out that I was selected to participate in the Chile SIP program at the beginning of March, right before the virus hit and things went south. I had viewed my participation in the DRCLAS Summer Internship Program in Latin America, as another step toward pursuing a career in Latin America, one in which I could speak Spanish and help to make an impact in a region that shared the language of my Mexican ancestors. Over the course of my first two years at Harvard, I had rekindled in myself an appreciation for my Hispanic heritage, a desire to speak Spanish more regularly, and above all else, a desire to work on projects that would help to improve the standard of living in Latin America. I was beyond excited to have the opportunity to connect with the people of Chile, understand their daily lives and help them to solve problems through my internship.
My experience with Ashoka Chile was more than I could have asked for and inspired an even stronger desire to immerse myself in Chile someday. I was welcomed onto their small, close knit team of women leaders and into a virtual environment that favored a horizontal form of leadership similar to a startup. My supervisors were kind, personable, and above all else, cool. They made me feel as if I were a valuable part of their team and not just another American doing an internship with them.
I was given the task of helping the team with its yearly selection process of Ashoka fellows: outstanding social entrepreneurs doing amazing work in Chile that had been recommended as valuable contributors to a network of people that in powerful ways were changing the world. This was no small task. The Ashoka team had a stringent process of interviews, recommendations, more interviews, a panel in which industry leaders provide recommendations, and finally an international board meeting in which the fellows were selected. I participated in these interviews, asking questions, taking notes, and discussing with my supervisors how to prepare the candidate profiles, a packet of information that would be presented to an international committee at the end of the process.
I came to know the Chilean candidates. Raúl was expanding access to quality dental care in Chile, as the longest waitlist among health operations is for dental care, leaving almost 70% of the population without medical attention. Gonzalo carried out large infrastructural projects in Chile’s most isolated regions, where only 15% of the federal budget is spent. Cecilia was building her grassroots organization to advocate for more patient rights in the Chilean health system, a system that accounts for 3 million chronic patients that do not have the same advocacy and support as they do in the United States. Each story provided a small window into the Chilean world, a beautiful world that is plagued with its own unique problems. Each story taught me the importance of finding meaning in the work that one does, and the sacrifices that are made when you really believe that you can make a change. Oftentimes these sacrifices were made at the beginning of their paths: quitting a lucrative job, selling a car, moving away from loved ones. In return, I observed a quiet confidence in those Chileans, that they had connected with a greater cause than their own and that they continued for something even larger. I long to one day acquire that quiet confidence, one that supersedes a flashy title but instead is grown from lifting up the strangers around you.
Over the course of weekly meetings and chats, I came to know the directors and coworkers of my team on a level that would not have been possible had it not been for the pandemic. One conversation after another, I was introduced to the struggles they faced: their quarantine and the new reality of staying at home. One morning, my boss sent me a picture of an Andean fog cascading down the cordillera, or mountain range, outside her home. For a moment, I felt as if I was interacting with someone from a completely different world. I would be reminded that even in such a beautiful place like Chile, with all of its natural wonder and Chilenismos, its people were going through their own difficulties. I eventually understood that some of those struggles were not too different from what was going on in the United States at the time. I found this comforting and a reassurance of just how connected we actually were, as co-workers, but also as humans across country boundaries.
While many Chileans were busy figuring out how to continue the social revolution that had begun in 2019, many in the United States took to the streets for our own country’s injustices, those of police brutality and racial inequality after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I remember the connection I felt when discussing these movements with a fellow intern attending university in Santiago. She was in a similar life-stage as me, taking classes online, wondering what the future would hold. We had hours-long conversations about the intricacies and nuances of our countries, the complex histories that lay behind the various national tragedies. Both of our countries were struggling against corrupt systems that had been created for the success and protection of some, but not for all. Those conversations too, made it seem that our experiences were not all that foreign. Those moments too, felt undeniably human.
The supplemental programming offered by the DRCLAS team also provided an intimate look into the cultural issues and histories of Latin America. Perhaps the most impactful seminar was about the “desaparecidos,” those who had forcibly disappeared during a politically and socially tumultuous past decade in the region. I had heard the term before in classes on Latin American history but had never taken to heart what it meant to so many people to have their loved ones taken away from them, their names erased as if they never even existed.
During the start of our Zoom meeting that day, one of the seminar organizers asked students to introduce themselves with their name and state the names of their parents as well. Thinking of what I would say, I was reminded of how very little I thought about myself in such a way, a way that perhaps would show up on a government file or census document. Knowing my parents is something that I have often taken for granted in my life. I don’t know everything about them, but to be able to say that I know them is a privilege that I often overlook. I was reminded of my father’s childhood, and how my grandmother wouldn’t let him go outside when they lived in Rio de Janeiro in the 60’s. I was reminded of my grandfather, a man that I never met, and his leadership in the Chicano movement in the Southwestern United States. Someone like my grandfather could have easily disappeared had he not been living in the United States. And then I was overwhelmed by all of the implications this would have had, and that my own existence would be put into question. My sister’s existence. My father’s. My cousins’. My Aunt’s and Uncle’s. I wasn’t able to begin to understand the tragedy of the “desaparecidos” until I began to think about my own family’s history and how much we would have lost.
Looking back on my virtual summer experience with DRCLAS SIP, I realize that I gained so much more than just a virtual internship. I was given the opportunity to reflect on my identity, the identities of others, and just how meaningful it can be to come to know those from a place that at the start may seem a world away.
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