Mexico City made me a journalist.
At 22, I signed up for a volunteer-abroad program and was assigned to work at a women’s media nonprofit.
I showed up with broken Spanish and the writing experience of a melodramatic diarist and left six months later determined to become a reporter in the mold of the hard-boiled, razor-sharp women I had worked with.
That experience has guided much of my life — all the way to starting my own media nonprofit years later. So when Liliana Caracoza, a young reporter I mentor, told me she wanted to go to southern Mexico to volunteer with an indigenous-rights organization, I was all for it.
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Caracoza, 19, is facing the typical challenges of volunteering abroad — what to bring, where to stay, how to get the cheapest flight. But she’s also grappling with more than just logistics.
“I can tell you that the majority of those who go abroad are Caucasian and affluent,” says Kristin Hayden, Founder and Executive Director of OneWorld Now!, a Seattle-based nonprofit that takes underserved youth on trips abroad, primarily to China and the Middle East.
Hayden says the disparity can often be blamed on a lack of resources — something Caracoza can relate to.
Caracoza moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 11. She works two jobs — as a barista and in a warehouse — to help support her family while also attending Tacoma Community College.
“For me it’s a really privileged thing (to go abroad),” says Caracoza, who adds that the only people she knows who have traveled are in the military. “People like me, we can’t afford to not worry about money.”
To defray some of the costs, she’s already received donations from family and friends, and is running an online campaign through the fundraising site Kickstarter.
And while many young people have to fundraise to go abroad (I saved money from my own barista job and hit up people in my network for help), there are often more barriers than just the cost of travel.
Many of the young people Hayden works with have to make financial contributions to their families. Others are children of immigrants who struggled to get to the U.S. and don’t understand the desire to go abroad again.
She cites a recent study by the Institute of International Education that revealed that almost 80 percent of all college students who study abroad are white.
“They never saw this as possible for themselves,” she says of her students. “And even if you’re telling them, ‘No, this is possible. Don’t let money get in the way’ … it’s still a huge mental leap.”
If they don’t make that leap, it could hold them back. In an increasingly globalized world, international experience is valuable to colleges and employers. Like the controversy over unpaid internships (and who can or can’t afford that kind of résumé-building experience) the disparity in volunteer and study-abroad opportunities could have deep implications.
“Global education is more critical now that we live in a totally connected world,” says Bookda Gheiser of Global Washington, an organization that advocates for internationally focused education. (Global Washington is a sponsor of The Seattle Globalist, where I work.)
Caracoza agrees. She’s passionate about the work she’ll be doing (specifically supporting victims of domestic violence), eager to learn more about her Mexican roots and looking to have an experience that might help her “stand out” in college essays (she hopes to transfer to a four-year university within a year).
But more than anything wants an adventure — an opportunity to figure out what she’s made of.
“I want to see different perspectives and different lives,” she says, her voice barely containing her excitement. “I want to know it all … I want to see who I am.”
Who can’t relate to that?
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SeaStute