My Journey: from rural Colombia to the United States
Today, March 8, the world celebrates International Women's Day, and I pause to think about my journey as a woman and a member of the Colombian diaspora.
I grew up in a rural area in the southwest of Colombia, without any access to technology or books. I also realized that my circumstances would not limit my dreams or my achievements. With only two encyclopedias, I made my way through school as one of the best students in my class.
My father was illiterate and worked as a horse trainer for minimum pay, which in Colombia is around $200 a month. As a child, my father was the only one who brought money into the house. My mother is a housewife. In spite of everything, he dreamed of having his own house and saved every penny he could to build our house, a project that took him years. My mother finished high school as an adult. Despite the memories and scars of the forced displacement from which we were victims in the 1990s due to the armed conflict, my parents never gave up in their desire to improve themselves and give me and my siblings a better future.
I graduated from high school not knowing if I would be able to continue studying because my parents could not afford the cost of the university. I decided to start my own business selling candy and sodas in my house, which was located in a small village one hour away from Cali, Colombia. With the profits, I decided to start an English course, and my father helped me to get into a technical distance learning institute where I went every Saturday to take classes.
After a few months, I moved to Cali. There, I was accepted at Johnson & Johnson as an intern in the Department of Human Resources. Then, thanks to my intermediate English I worked at Marriott Hotels as a Front Desk Assistant in the same city. In 2015, and after planning and saving for several years, I traveled to the United States on an exchange program as an Au Pair. I had always dreamed of traveling and getting to know other cultures and other countries, not knowing that one day that would be a reality. Although it was only around $2,000.00 for the program, for me it was a lot of money. My dad helped me as much as he could, and that's how I embarked to the United States near Washington D.C. I left full of dreams and nostalgia for everything I was leaving behind. But I knew that I was not the only one who had emigrated and that ahead of me many other women of my age had left everything behind with only a suitcase.
Once in the United States, I had to navigate a new language and a completely different culture. It was the first time out of my country, away from everything I knew and I could barely communicate because I realized that my English still needed a lot of improvement. Adjusting was not easy, but I was full of enthusiasm and faith and was not going to let anything stop me, not even my own fears and insecurities. I started taking English classes at Montgomery College, a community college in Maryland. My host family with whom I lived as an Au Pair supported me unconditionally to take additional classes and for that, I will be grateful all my life.
For three and a half years I lived in the Washington D.C. area. There, for the first time, I was very close to one of the centers of world politics. It was almost surreal for me to be there because I thought of other women like me who might never break the bonds of poverty and lack of opportunities. After finishing the Au Pair program, I had the opportunity to study for an Associates's Degree at Montgomery College, and who is now my husband supported me unconditionally to continue my education. He also understands that education is the pillar of development and that an educated woman generates progress in any society regardless of the country of origin. I worked as a nanny to help myself financially with college expenses. After a year and a half, I graduated with my Associate's Degree with honors. Thanks to the advice of my professors I applied to Smith College, a women's and liberal arts college in Massachusetts. There, I learned about the tools available to women, such as feminist collections, assistance and research work with professors, educational funds to develop our own projects, public relations departments to give us our voices and discuss the issues that move us. Smith College is a purely women's empowerment institution that has transformed many lives like mine. In a couple of months, I will be graduating with a degree in political science and international relations. My heart is filled with pride because even though it has been 15 years since I graduated from high school, today I am very close to achieving one of the biggest dreams of my life.
The academic formation and life experiences I have had in Colombia and in the United States have been pivotal for me. I am the woman I am thanks to all the experiences I have lived, the things I have learned, and the people who have been with me on my path, supporting and guiding me. As a member of global diasporas, my desire is to one day return to Colombia and support other women like me who come from similar circumstances. I want to contribute and give back a little of what I have earned all these years because for me the key to development is to educate and empower women. We are strong and determined, but we cannot do it alone. We need the support of other women and men as well. We need them to have faith in us and extend their hands.
Note: the picture above is from my graduation at MC in 2019. From left to right: Dr. Keith Martin, my writing mentor, and friend since day one at MC and even today. On the right, is my husband and best friend Michael Kessler, who has supported me unconditionally over the past 6 years.