Despite the many appealing student clubs that bid for my involvement, there was only one that truly captured my attention. I approached Ukiah Busch, an intimidatingly tall graduate student. Ukiah was a fellow with Partner of the Americas, an international NGO that seeks to connect people and organizations across borders to serve and change lives through lasting partnerships across Latin America. Ukiah introduced me to Partners of the Americas and their initiative to create a network of well-connected student-service chapters that empower students in the Americas to become effective agents of change, both locally and internationally, through leadership, civic engagement, volunteerism, and professional development opportunities.
Ukiah needed help to expand the network and bring awareness to this new initiative throughout US and Latin American college campuses. Recognizing my enthusiasm, he identified me as a potential leader. I was sold! I set out with Ukiah to help create the structure for the Partners Student Chapters network and to co-found the first-ever student chapter at American University. During this first pilot year, our chapter at AU engaged with faculty and international development professionals to learn about the international development field and its practice in different countries in Latin America. We connected with students at Latin American universities to learn more about their cultures and hear them speak directly about their community’s unique needs and challenges. We also participated in local community service events in Washington, D.C. and international development projects, to help our network grow.
One of the many events that we organized that exemplified the mission and goals of our group was the Copa Para Las Americas mini soccer tournament. In perfect timing with the World Cup, the mini tournament rallied the spirit of Latin America and soccer lovers bringing together the local AU community for an international cause. By participating in this tournament and in partnership with the organization Students Helping Honduras, participants fundraised to build a school in Eben Ezer, a rural village in northern Honduras so that children would not be exposed to dangerous areas and have easier access to better education. The students who took part in the soccer tournament learned about what different organizations were doing to combat and use education as means of reducing violence and helping youth. The soccer tournament was one way in which we sought to expose students to the realities and also to the solutions of common international development issues.
Through the realization of this event, students built their own professional development skills, learned to plan and manage the logistics of an event, learned from skilled experts working in the sports-for-development field, and contributed to an international development project. Similarly, other local student chapters organized themselves to put on events geared towards improving some aspect of their local or international community.
Within just the first month of the project, the AU chapter gained over 50 members and 3 faculty advisors, the chapter gained formal recognition on campus, access to $6,500 per year in project funds and hosted international lectures and fundraising events. Within the year, we had created a student network of more than 20 chapters in 10 countries driven by motivated and ambitious student leaders sharing a commitment to service and a focus on the Americas. To consolidate the network and celebrate our early success, we organized the First Annual Student Chapter Convention in the Partners of the Americas office in Washington, D.C., which brought together student leaders from chapters in Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras, and the United States. The convention provided a space for student leaders to share what had worked in their chapters and what hadn’t, discuss their ideas for projects, and create the friendships and the support network they needed to make lasting impact in their communities.
The power of this initiative came full circle for me when I had the opportunity to travel to Porto Alegre, Brazil for an international business management course as part of a class at American University. In Brazil, I was able to reconnect with and visit Joao Aguiar, the student chapter president in Porto Alegre, Brazil at the time and a 2009 Youth Ambassador for the Indiana-Rio Grande do Sul Youth Ambassadors Program, an intercultural exchange experience that works to create an awareness of cooperation between cultures through volunteerism and gives Indiana’s youth an opportunity to build leadership skills and greater understanding with Indiana’s Partner state, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil (RGS). A similar yet more meaningful and more personal exchange also occurred when I visited Joao. He showed me around his hometown, taught me about the difficulties that his city was facing, introduced me to other student chapter members, and taught me what his student chapter was doing. During that visit, we solidified a life-long friendship that continues to be a mutually beneficial connection as it made me open to experience new and unknown things and be sympathetic to diverse life perspectives.
By providing me the opportunity to contribute to Partners’ student chapter initiative, Ukiah and Partners of the Americas invested directly in my growth and talent as a volunteer and as a leader. What’s more, the establishment of that student network empowered Partners of the Americas to continue to deepen its engagement with student leaders at universities and colleges, an important part of Partners’ redoubled focus on connecting higher education institutions in the Americas. As Partners’ effort to connect higher education intuitions became a key institutional anchor of President Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas Initiative, a public-private partnership that works with a network of over 1,200 higher education institutions across the hemisphere to foster region-wide prosperity through greater international exchange of students, the connection to student leaders became even more important.
My story, which became one of many as the network expanded, characterizes the powerful role of purposeful global engagement and citizen diplomacy. Matt Clausen of Partners of the Americas explains that citizen diplomacy has become “an intentional effort to maximize our understanding and appreciate the diversity that exists on our planet.” Even in the midst of a digital age where thoughts are boiled down to 140-character tweets, today’s most impactful solutions to complex issues are defined by people-to-people interactions that foster deeper interconnectedness and shared understanding.
So by chance, when I hesitantly approached Ukiah during the student activities fair four years ago, I had no idea how profound of an impact our conversation and following connection would have on my life. What began as a simple and informal exchange on a college campus transformed into a formal arrangement, a plan that allowed me to empower many students across the hemisphere to work together to understand and be part of the solutions to pressing development problems. The initiative had given me a new-found awareness, confidence and understanding of my own capability to inspire others to seek and use their full potential to make changes. Through this initiative, I helped develop a program that cultivates young leaders, and in turn the experience became instrumental in my own professional development, giving me the tools I needed to become an effective agent of change. What I didn’t realize at the time when I took on the initiative was that I had not only found a group that was engaged and committed to Latin America’s growth, but that I had also contributed to this commitment. As this stands true, today, the initiative continues bringing young leaders into the Partners of the Americas network, contributing substantially to the organization’s growth and sustainability and to Latin America’s future. Today, I am proud to have been a part of the launch of an initiative that continues to develop a new generation of young leaders, and am tremendously humbled to be one among them.
Nathalia Montoya Casanova is a Program Associate at PYXERA Global where she provides support and facilitates communication activities for Global Pro Bono Projects in Latin American and around the world. Nathalia is a 2014 graduate of American University’s School of International Service (SIS) where she earned a B.A. in International Economics Relations with a concentration in International Business Management. She is passionate about international development, social entrepreneurship and community engagement.