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You would think that plunging directly into my hometown of almost nineteen years would yield routine results—invariable observations I would be wont to have. Yet, cradled between familiar mountains and blanketed by the same dusty borderland sky, my everyday community sprung opportunities ready to impart me with new knowledge. As my gap year commenced, my newfound role as an intern for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center delivered a transformative culture shock a few short miles away from the border along which I had been raised.
Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center (“Las Americas,” for short), prides itself on its unique hub of community volunteers, interns, paralegals, and attorneys, all working to provide relief and pro bono legal aid to migrants from across the globe. Interning for the Detained Team at Las Americas, I assumed differing roles to contribute, however slightly or laboriously, to the mission of the organization, from ordering files to interviewing detainees about their often-harrowing cases for asylum.
Even just a few months into my work, I witnessed significant diversity and similarities across cases. Clients shared insight into the heart-wrenching realities of their home countries: some fled incarceration under an unjust government, unmitigated destitution, religious persecution, or as victims caught in the crossfire of corrupt systems and violent groups. Some immediately acquiesced to substandard conditions and discrimination at detention centers in the hopes of prompt release, while others petitioned officials for basic respect. Some arrived already suffering physical and/or mental trauma, escaping brutality and degradation to the most primitive conditions imaginable. At times my stomach would churn upon hearing the clients’ ages, some even younger than me.
Across backgrounds, every client bore ideals valued by the US to this same country that attempted to turn them away. While some advocated for their freedoms and inalienable rights, others promoted love, faith, assiduity, forgiveness, and courtesy, even when aware of how the US misconstrued them as wrongdoers or criminals.
However, all of the clients—regardless of language barriers, cultural differences, or brevity—spoke with the same humble dignity and respect, their tone fatigued, but never defeated. Engaging in such poignant conversations with clients resulted in constant emotional growth, as I strived to empathize with the detainees and offer the solace lacking in the immigration system. Despite the complexity of such an unforgiving system, the people I spoke with maintained hope, braving every undeserved difficulty to seek a better life.
Often before ending their interviews with a blessing for the workers at Las Americas, the clients I spoke with disclosed pieces of wisdom I carry with me:
- “Venimos a sembrar semilla Buena a este país” (We have come to plant a virtuous seed in this country)
- “Love recognizes no religion or color”
- “En ninguna carcel, ni de oro, alguien se va a sentir bien” (In no prison, not even one of gold, will someone feel good)
- “La vida es bonita, nadamás es saberla vivir. Por uno no viene para molestar” (Life is beautiful, if only you know how to live it. That is why one does not come to this country just to be a bother.)
As I prepare to spend Christmas with my family knowing the clients I spoke with may not obtain the same opportunity, I think of the lessons working at Las Americas has instilled in me thus far, remembering to hold steadfast to faith and hope and look forward, but also sideways to our fellow neighbors. I now move forward with the intent of treating everyone benevolently and finding ways to alter the immigration system for the better, seeking the noble work hidden within the niches of my community.
This is Ray, and welcome to my third blog. Some say, “shooters shoot;” to that I respond, “bloggers blog”.
Since my first blog, I have been working as an intern for Youth Transforming Justice – an organization based in Marin that focuses on restorative justice. I haven’t written about YTJ yet, so I thought I might focus on some restorative justice talk this blog post.
YTJ’s primary responsibility is serving as an alternative to the traditional adolescent judicial system in California. They primarily work with drug and alcohol cases at the local high schools. Rather than facing suspension and a legal trail, YTJ works with students to create a restorative solution. The goal of our current judicial system is to punish the respondent. so they will be disincentivized to break the law again. With a restorative approach to justice, the goal is to heal and strengthen the relationships that the respondent damaged. This might take the form of community service, risk reduction training, or serving as a mentor to teens in similar situations.
One big part of YTJ is the youth meeting (also known as a youth court). Rather than a hearing in the California Juvenile Court, respondents meet with 10 or so kids their age. The bailiff, jury, and the respondent’s advocate are all teenagers, but the meeting still has legal significance. It serves as an alternative to a trial in the California Juvenile Court. In order to take part in the meeting, respondents must accept responsibility for their actions; the meeting isn’t a place to decide guilt or innocence. Instead, it’s a place for respondents to explain themselves and reflect on their actions.
Members of the jury take turns asking questions to the respondent – questions about their drug/alcohol use, home-life, personal relationships, etc. After learning more about the respondent and their current position in life, the jury creates a restorative plan for the respondent. The restorative plan is a list of actions the respondent needs to take in order to heal the relationships they damaged. Most restorative plans include serving as a member of the jury and participating in community engagement.
Since the virus emerged in the US, YTJ has almost exclusively been hosted online. Moving online eliminated a transportation problem. In the past, kids would have to miss required meetings because they could not find a reliable form of transportation to our offices. This isn’t a problem anymore, but internet connectivity is. YTJ relies on communication to form bonds and build empathy. Unstable internet is a big roadblock to this – shaky wifi creates stilted conversations. Although I am excited for the day when YTJ works in person, I hope we can use Zoom to make a more equitable program.
As an intern, I’ve been participating in the jury and working as a case manager. I am also helping create a similar restorative system in San Mateo county. As a case manager, I help kids complete the entire restorative process. The youth meeting is a small part of the overall program, I facilitate conversations and help them navigate harm-reduction training and community engagement.
The work is internally fulfilling. I have the opportunity to work with many people I would normally not cross paths with. I am helping kids my age move past the mistakes they made in the past.
See you in the next blog!
This last month I started an internship at Renegade, an NYC marketing agency. This was a huge opportunity for me that was realized by reaching out to a Duke alum. I began this process in August, contacting alumni who were working in fields that aligned with my interests. My more niche career aspirations are in the application of behavioral economics in marketing, so that helped narrow my field. However, I did not confine myself to the specifics of that field, instead, I simply looked for work that excited me and could eventually connect back to my interests. For me, the larger goal of a gap year internship was a hands-on experience, valuable networking, and a clarifying career insight. With this in mind, I reached out to someone whose career I admired, Drew Neisser the CEO of Renegade, to ask if he had any wisdom to share. I was surprised when he quickly took the time to respond warmly and enthusiastically. He mentioned that there was an open intern position at Renegade and helped me organize an interview. Not only was this exciting from a professional standpoint, but it made me feel like part of the Duke family even though I’m not attending this year.
After the interview, I was hired as Renegade’s youngest intern ever. I couldn’t be happier with this opportunity! I was grateful to find that this was not just a coffee run position (although, there wouldn’t be much coffee to run with a virtual internship anyway), I was welcomed into the work-family and given tasks of actual substance. I work on transcribing episodes of Drew’s podcast, Renegade Thinker Unite, which is a bit secretarial but allows me to listen in depth to interviews with top CMOs. These podcasts give me a unique opportunity to learn about a diverse array of marketing skills. With this I find myself learning new things every day that will give me a leg up in the future. Additionally, it keeps my grammar skills sharp. Recently, I have also be enlisted to co-produce a new LinkedIn live series. I am particularly excited about this. While I could go on about everything I have learned so far I will likely save that for my next blog post. I am very grateful and excited about this internship, in my current tasks and future prospects.
This summer, I interned at an Austin-based scientific computing company called Enthought. While Covid-19 forced many people to cancel their plans, I am extraordinarily lucky in that my father works for Enthought, and I was able to participate in the internship from home.
The goal of my internship this summer was to provide a better understanding of physics and engineering through both a classroom and hands-on setting. The final aim was to create a maskless photolithography machine, but before we could begin, I needed a much better handle on physics and coding. We also needed a proper workspace (for some reason my mom refused to let us use the welding torch and hazardous chemicals in our living room…) so we set out to transform our garage into a laboratory. For the first month of the internship, I spent half of my workday in “class” with my dad, learning to code and studying electromagnetics and optics. For the rest of the day, I got my first taste of mechanical engineering as we designed and built tables for our new laboratory. After several weeks of cutting, drilling, and welding and hours of pulling metal shavings from my hair, we finished four tables, one of which is pictured.
Once I was adequately educated and our lab was completely built, I could begin researching and designing the maskless photolithography machine. Photolithography is a process used in microfabrication to etch a pattern onto a substrate, generally a silicon wafer. The wafer is coated with a substance called photoresist, which degrades when exposed to UV light. A patterned “mask” is placed over the substrate to block UV light, leaving only the unmasked areas to be exposed and degraded. Then, the wafer is coated in a solvent that dissolves the degraded areas but leaves the rest of the photoresist intact. This process enables manufacturers to etch extremely small patterns onto silicon wafers. However, masks are extremely expensive and cannot be altered, so they aren’t an ideal solution. In my internship, I investigated a newer idea called “maskless photolithography,” which uses a projector to shine a pattern directly onto the substrate, eliminating the need for a mask.
To give an idea of what the project was like, I have documented the main three challenges— though there were certainly more— that I faced when building the machine.
The first hurdle was to coat the substrate with photoresist (while prototyping, I used a microscope slide as my substrate instead of a silicon wafer because it is cheaper). In order to perform photolithography, the substrate must have an extremely even coating of photoresist. To achieve this, I found I must first rigorously clean the microscope slide using various chemicals and baking it on a hot plate. Then, I would place the slide on a spin-coater and apply the photoresist liquid to its center. As the slide spun, centrifugal force would push the photoresist outward so that it formed an even layer on the slide’s surface. In the picture provided, I am completing the spin-coating process. Note the light in the room is orange— I placed a filter on the lightbulb that blocks all light under 450nm so that the photoresist is not degraded as I am spin-coating. (IMAGE #2) The resulting photoresist coat isn’t completely perfect, especially near the edges of the slide, but it is plenty accurate for our project. In fact, we were able to use data from a spectrometer to discover the photoresist coating was a constant 7 microns thick in the center of the slide, which was exactly our goal!
The next step was to design an adjustable mount for the projector. Since photolithography is used for making extremely tiny objects such as computer chips, the projected image needs to be extremely small with an accuracy of several microns— which is a fraction of the width of a human hair. In order to condense the projector’s image to this size, I mounted the projector above a microscope so that it shines through the microscope’s lenses and produces a tiny image through the objective lens. After much trial and error, we created a mount that can adjust the projector’s position in the x,y, and z directions, as well as two rotating axes which allow us to adjust the projector’s angle. For context, I have provided an image of my initial design for the mount accompanied by my notes for improvement. I have also included an image of the final product we created.
Lastly, I adjusted the lens path of the projector and microscope in order to focus and center the image through the microscope’s objective lens. The projector’s initial image was far too large to fit into the small microscope lens, so I 3D printed a device to hold a series of condenser lenses in order to reduce the image. However, each lens attenuates the UV light, which activates the photoresist, so I adjusted my final design to use only a single condenser lense which I positioned in an adjustable 3D printed mount. After making a few additional adjustments to the projector— such as removing the color wheel and UV filter, I was ready to test my machine.
As with every science experiment, the first attempt was largely a failure. Though the projector and lens mounts were completely adjustable, I still couldn’t seem to position the projector so that the image was both centered and focused beneath the objective lens. After designing several new iterations of a 3d-printed mount for the condenser lens— ultimately deciding to mount it to the microscope rather than the projector— I have nearly attained success. I am hopeful that several more iterations in the last few weeks of my internship will prove successful and the project will be complete.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my internship this summer, and feel so lucky to have been able to participate in it!
When I made the decision back in May to join the Gap Year Program, I had grand aspirations and plans of working at a zoo, travelling the world, and learning a new language. While a global pandemic has certainly been enough to throw a wrench in all my plans, the past few months have shown me that sometimes, plans are made to fall apart. Without any further ado, here are three ways my gap year plans have changed, plus one way I’ve changed along with them:
- This is perhaps the most obvious of the three items on this list: No Travelling Abroad! One of the things I was most looking forward to about my gap year, and one of the main reasons I decided to take a gap year in the first place, was studying abroad. Although I may not be able to learn a language abroad, I’m definitely looking forward to taking some online classes and self-study.
- Another thing I was really looking forward to this year was my internship at Riverbanks Zoo, where I’ve been volunteering for the past four years. Unfortunately, the zoo cancelled all internships and volunteer programs for the foreseeable future, so I’m stuck waiting to see if things will open back up again in the spring. However, this has made me look more into other local opportunities, and I found a wildlife rescue and a farm animal sanctuary I had no idea existed!
- I got my first job! Now, this is something I never would have considered as part of my gap year, but after finding my year relatively unstructured, I’ve found that it makes every cent more meaningful knowing how much work goes into earning every penny.
+1. During this time of uncertainty and disorganization, I’ve learned that sometimes it takes a little uncertainty to figure out what you really enjoy in life and want to pursue, rather than just going through the motions. There are opportunities I had never considered, pathways I had never even dreamed of before taking the time to get away from all the pressures and just experience life. If I’ve learned anything from the past few months, it’s that sometimes, you need to take a step back, slow your pace, and examine what it is you really want from life and how your actions fit with this goal.
Unpredictability will be a major theme this year for all of us, and I’ve already gotten my first taste of that in the form of a major change of plans this fall: originally I was going to be on my way to the mountains of North Carolina right now, backpacking and canoeing with Outward Bound for two months. Instead, I’m writing this from my desk and won’t be leaving town for another four weeks. Outward Bound’s NC office announced that it is unable to offer programming this fall, and I’ve been transferred over to their Minnesota office.
For a few days, I thought that I would be going to MN in September. Then I got another email–they weren’t able to meet all of the requirements to run that program, so I was given the option to transfer again, this time to a program in Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas. Now I’m planning on being gone from mid October through the first week of December–we’ll spend 50 days backpacking through the desert and canoeing on the Rio Grande. I’ve never been to Texas or spent much time in the Southwest, and I can’t wait to experience such a beautiful part of the country! For now, I’m preparing for this trip by exercising regularly and gradually increasing the distance I can walk with a weighted backpack.
I’ve been able to extend my internship, and I’ll keep working until I leave in October. When I wrote my last blog post I had just started working with this firm, and after only a month with them I’ve already learned so much. My job, in a nutshell, is to be on call to help a group of associates produce political campaign ads. This usually means scouring the internet for images and videos, or reading through speeches to find quotes. One of the most interesting jobs I’ve had so far was recording and transcribing a call with a client–it was fascinating to listen in and hear how members of our firm went about learning what they need to know to best help this person’s campaign.
At first I was nervous about starting this internship because it’s completely remote–I was worried about learning to work with people who I’ve never met face-to-face, and starting a job without receiving any in-office training. I’m lucky to work with a team of incredibly nice people, many of whom started out as interns themselves and are always willing to answer questions and explain everything. One of the benefits of my Outward Bound program being pushed back a month is that I’m now able to stay with this firm through the first couple of weeks of October, which is their busiest time of the year. If everything goes as planned, I’ll be in Texas and completely off the grid for all of November and the first week of December–that means not finding out how our clients do in the election until a month after it happens. It’s going to be odd having no idea what’s going on after being so involved for three months, so hopefully I’ll see all good news when I get home!
Since I’m not travelling yet, I decided to give myself a bit of a change of scenery by moving my workspace up to the desk in my brother’s room now that he’s away at college. This is where I’ve been doing work for my internship, filling out paperwork for Outward Bound and (fingers crossed) a spring Where There Be Dragons program, and studying Chinese. I’m looking forward to continuing to work on the things that I enjoy and hopefully getting out to Texas in October, but of course, my plans could change completely in the next month. If they do, I’m ready–that’s all just a part of the process this year.
This month I’ve continued to prepare for my trip to Ethiopia, where I will be interning at a new boarding school called the Haile-Manas Academy. The date I leave, September 25th, is fast approaching, yet I still have so much to do! Although I have had the opportunity to travel in the past, this is my first experience organizing an international trip on my own. And there has been a huge learning curve. Applying for a visa, booking plane tickets, getting international healthcare coverage, and taking numerous COVID tests—these are just a few of the many things I am trying to get together before I leave. And then there are all the little things to consider—will I need to bring hangers for my dorm room? How will I withdraw money while I’m abroad? What kind of adapter do I need for wall outlets? How do I get my hands on a burner phone and SIM card? (I know that sound questionable, but I promise everyone—I’ll keep writing these blog posts! I just can’t get an international phone plan in Ethiopia.)
Even with most of these questions answered, admittedly I still feel nervous. I’ve never been to East Africa before and despite research and conversations with Ethiopian faculty members, I still don’t really know what to expect. This is the first large-scale moment that I’ve been entirely responsible for myself, and that kind of scares me. Luckily, I know that my nerves are natural and even necessary. To move halfway across the world during a pandemic with absolutely no worries at all would be pretty foolish.
It also helps that I have a close relationship with those involved with the Haile-Manas Academy. The school’s founder, Rebecca Haile, is actually the mother of my childhood friend, Amalia. Rebecca fled Ethiopia as a child refugee after the 1974 Revolution. Her family’s decision to leave was triggered by an attempt at her father’s life: the Derg, the communist group that came into power at the time, was trying to cleanse the nation of any individuals associated with the former imperial regime. Rebecca’s father wasn’t in government—he was actually a university professor in Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital—but Derg revolutionaries still viewed him as a threat to their authority. Thankfully, after receiving medical care in London, Rebecca’s father survived and the entire family relocated to Minnesota. Yet to this day, neither him nor his wife have ever returned to Ethiopia.
But Rebecca has, and after years of reflection, she made the decision to open a boarding school there. Fast-forward to this month, and the Haile-Manas Academy is officially opening in mere days! I feel so lucky for the opportunity to be part of such an inspiring, powerful project, and I can’t wait to move in, get the school year started, and prepare for the arrival of all our students! Next time you all hear from me, I’ll finally be on campus!
Long-term planning during a global pandemic presents challenges. We have all asked ourselves what the world will look like in a month and a year. Will elbow bumps replace handshakes? Will meetings continue on Zoom? Will travel return to normal? There is a lot we don’t know, both about the future and the virus, and trying to plan a year in advance is essentially impossible.
I established my gap year goals from the beginning: travel and develop new perspectives, engage in meaningful local service, and participate in activities I love. I had a set of plans that fulfilled these goals, beginning with an internship at a software company in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam this fall. However, the virus rendered my plans impossible, and I struggled to accept this fact. The next year of my life was completely swept away by the virus, and I was left stunned.
Then something clicked: I realized my initial fall plans were hopeless. That total defeat allowed me to move on and see the opportunity that lay elsewhere. I jumped to action and, knowing I needed money to pay for my gap year, I pursued and got a job at a restaurant serving takeout. I started reaching out to anyone and everyone of interest, from my high school’s volunteer coordinator to politicians around the country. Plenty of my emails went unanswered, and I received many no’s, but the number of people interested in helping me was shocking and a welcome surprise. I pursued every opportunity available and of interest to me. I began to realize that the pandemic gave me the opportunity to reevaluate what is important to me. I had the chance to start over and examine what work would best allow me to achieve my gap year goals. Being limited in location allowed me to see how much I don’t know about Atlanta, where I was born and raised and still live. I plan to support and contribute to my local Atlanta community this fall through service and work. I am getting certified to teach reading through Reading is Essential for All People, or REAP.
I plan to conduct free tutoring sessions for students, particularly for students at an under-served Atlanta elementary school that I have volunteered with in the past. I have worked and will continue to work with their teachers and staff to support the school in the midst of the pandemic.
I am working as a research and teaching assistant to an Emory University instructor teaching healthcare management. I contributed to her business case study about a telehealth company in the pandemic that is in submission for publication in a peer-reviewed magazine.
After about two months of reaching out to MJ Hegar’s team (US Senate candidate in Texas), I now am a remote finance intern on the campaign. Having lots of family in Texas, I see the diverse needs of people within the state and am delighted to support an American hero fighting for the everyday Texan. My plans look nothing like they did five months ago, but I am excited to be involved with and serving communities of importance to me, particularly Atlanta. After countless emails, interviews, and phone calls, I now have a plan that reflects what I want to achieve.
The pandemic has reminded me to embrace the flexibility of a gap year. I am constantly learning and have the freedom to shape my gap year around what I learn, steering myself towards the person I want to be. I anticipate a lot of my ideas about my gap year will change over the course of the year, but I look forward to constantly adapting and uncovering new opportunities.
The silver lining I’ve elected to focus on in the midst of this torrential chaos and uncertainty engendered by COVID-19 is the precious, quality time I’ve been able to spend with my family, as the strict quarantine mandate has thrown a monkey wrench in our pre-pandemic, hectic work schedules. Instead of prioritizing getting ahead in our job or school, our new reality is finding creative ways to bond (watching various TV series on Netflix and Amazon Prime, staying up late to play Taboo, congregating in the kitchen to prepare meals together, etc.) so that we don’t go stir-crazy seeing one another 24/7 within the confines of our home. Inescapable family time not only couldn’t have been experienced at a more opportune moment than in the months immediately preceding my departure for college, but of equal importance, it’s allowed me to realize and appreciate one of the main reasons my Gap Year has been so transformative, enriching, and unforgettable: the close relationships and friendships that I’ve built at every step of this year-long journey. If my naïve 12th-grader self would’ve had even the slightest idea about how much fun she’d soon have sincerely getting to know people from all walks of life while interning at law firms, working on a US Senate political campaign, founding an academic nonprofit called Mack’s School Prep, and volunteering in Costa Rica for 2 months, she definitely would’ve known what was in her best interest and wouldn’t have been so hesitant about pursuing a Gap Year at first. Apparently, hindsight really is 20/20!
Job at Norton Rose Fulbright LLP:
- During our one-hour lunch breaks together, my co-worker/deskmate Allie would talk to me about her fanatical obsession with all things true crime, which ultimately got me hooked on what is still my favorite podcast: Crime Junkie. Thanks to Allie spurring my own interest in true crime stories, I’ve really enjoyed learning about the cases of people like Adnan Syed, in which the facts don’t present an unequivocal answer regarding whether the suspect is innocent or guilty.
Job at Horne Rota Moos LLP:
- Catherine, the attorney who helped me secure my job at this law firm, taught me the importance of embracing spontaneity, as planning my future to the “T”, especially when it comes to my education and career goals, means not leaving room for exploration.
- Terri, my day-to-day supervisor and the office mom, always took advantage of opportunities to impart encouraging words, such as nobody can make me feel inferior without my consent, to me.
Internship on US Senate political campaign:
- Witnessing Amanda Edwards, the candidate challenging John Cornyn for his seat to represent Texas in the US Senate, gracefully persevere after being denied support and financial assistance time and time again during phone banking really underscored the value of using rejection as fuel to work harder to achieve the goals I set my mind to.
Mack’s School Prep (MSP):
- When I was working to get MSP in front of students at South Early College High School, Nia and JeTaury, two Class of 2020 seniors with multiple connections to the student body as well as the faculty, generously and graciously offered to use their influence to help me advertise my academic program before I even had a chance to gain my bearings at their campus. Their unwavering selflessness and thoughtfulness without expecting any compensation in return inspired me to continue blessing people with unexpected acts of kindness, no matter how small, because they truly go a long way in terms of uplifting others’ spirits.
Volunteering in Costa Rica:
Megan, a New Yorker who became one of my good friends during the trip, has a disease known as Cystic Fibrosis that is medically predicted to result in her having a shorter than normal life expectancy. Megan’s steadfast optimism (in spite of having a grave reason not to) and admirable willingness to take risks, try new things, and get out of her comfort zone without any fear made me want to live each day with no regrets, which is why (in addition to being an adrenaline junkie) I went bungee jumping from a height of 469 feet in Monteverde Cloud Forest.
Taylor was a volunteer from Florida who I cherished spending time with because of her contagious aura of love. Her natural ability to retaliate against belligerence with kindness motivated me and others to not permit negativity to steal our joy.
Given that my Gap Year is practically over at this point, it elates me to have had the special opportunity to interact with an eclectic array of incredible people who have provided me food for thought, touched my heart in more ways than one, and opened my eyes to what it means to lead a fulfilling life. And for that, I couldn’t be prouder of my decision to take a Gap Year and more grateful for the immense amount of support I’ve received throughout it! Thank you to all.
I have come home from Buenos Aires with a strong desire for one thing: choripán. The delectable dish consists of grilled or smoked chorizo sausage, perfectly crunchy bread, and toppings such as gooey cheese, lettuce, and coleslaw. My favorite place to grab choripán, apart from every other street corner, was a restaurant called Chori in Palermo Soho. No writing could possibly evoke my love of this restaurant, or the gourmet smoked chorizo and interesting sandwich combinations offered on the menu. If you’re going to Buenos Aires, Chori is life changing.
The list of mouth-watering foods I tried in Buenos Aires is extensive, but some of my favorites included alfajores, a cookie filled with dulce de leche; faina, a chickpea pancake; provoleta, a round of grilled provolone cheese; and empanadas, delicious pockets of bread filled with meat, cheese, or onions. The portions in Buenos Aires were as generous as the people in the city, which is to say very generous. Of course the steak and chimichurri were continual highlights at the dinner table; I once went to a restaurant that included three different kinds of salt to season a slab of tender meat with.
Apart from the food, which could merit a whole blog post on its own, I enjoyed walking around the very sizable, very warm city. I was not prepared for the immensity of the port city, nor the variety and distinct identity of every neighborhood within it. The neighborhood I lived in, called Palermo, was a decidedly hip and vibrant neighborhood, packed to the brim with fun coffee shops, brunch spots, bars, live music venues, and trendy shops. Recoleta, a nearby neighborhood, had incredible green spaces, historic street markets, museums, posh restaurants, and stunning French-inspired architecture. Puerto Madero had beautiful modern architecture, being the newest neighborhood in the city, with a sleek bridge outlining the shape of a woman dancing tango. Each neighborhood had a different intrinsic quality that separated it from other neighborhoods. I’m not sure I could say I got to know the entirety of Buenos Aires, but I did come to know small pockets the city allowed me to see. I could spend years discovering new things on new street corners in new neighborhoods, and never tire.
Of the small nooks I was able to see, I discovered lots of beauty, diversity, and history. I loved wandering the various street markets for locally produced goods such as paintings and maté cups. I loved touring El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a theater-turned-bookstore that took my breath away. I loved touring the Zanjón, a passage of underground labyrinths on the site of the first Buenos Aires settlement in 1536. I loved visiting the cultural center in Recoleta to watch dancers practicing choreography, or attend showcases of young local artists. One of my favorite experiences was going to La Bomba de Tiempo, a Monday night percussion-only concert. I never expected to dance in the rain until two a.m. on a Monday night, but these experiences are what gap years are made of!
I would be missing a key highlight of my experience in Buenos Aires if I didn’t talk about my time as an intern for Fundación La Alameda. La Alameda is a non-profit serving the community in Floresta, a neighborhood near the outskirts of the city. The organization has evolved from their beginnings as a soup kitchen to a multi-hyphenate project fighting against child labor, sweatshops, human trafficking, and much more. Their slogan, “Ni esclavos, ni excluidos,” translates roughly to, “Neither slaves, nor people excluded.”
On my first day as an intern, I was plunged straight into the La Alameda world. I was happy that they took me seriously as a young, American intern and entrusted me to translate a document on human organ trafficking from English to Spanish. It was certainly an interesting, albeit disturbing, first day, but I was eager to help make information on such an important topic available to a wider set of people. I worked on many translation projects throughout my 6-weeks in Buenos Aires, and also researched global public policy and laws surrounding human trafficking and prostitution, and conceptualized ways to apply similar practices in Argentina. I was also able to compile a spreadsheet of information on potential hot-spots of prostitution and human trafficking in the city. The office was small and I was the only intern braving the (at times suffocating) summer heat in the city, but I enjoyed spending time with my coworkers and the daily office maté break, the national drink of Argentina.
The most memorable experience for me in Argentina had to be my trip away from the city (however much I loved it!) to Iguazú. I was nervous to travel by myself for the first time, but the wonders of the Iguazú waterfalls, a UNESCO world heritage site spanning both Argentina and Brazil, outweighed any doubts I had. The photos I had seen online could not have prepared me for the enormity or power of the cataracts, comprising around 275 waterfalls. Standing at the edge of the largest waterfall, the “Devil’s Throat,” I was completely and utterly at a loss of words. The grey mist obscured the bottom of the falls and sprayed upward, shrouding the surrounding greenery and cliffs with mystical clouds. The roar of the water surged at a speed I could not have anticipated. Looking into the milky mouth of the waterfall I felt tiny and irrelevant in comparison; a small speck observing this beast of nature. The devil’s throat is certainly a well-deserved name. Later in the day, I took a boat ride through the Iguazú river, coming so close to the waterfalls that I could taste their spray. We were able to sail directly beneath one of the smaller waterfalls, completely drenching the boat and everyone on it.
In Argentina, I explored street art; took a tango class; attended the international student organization’s “American”, but not very American, themed parties; studied Latin-American art at MALBA; went thrift shopping on rooftops; learned about Argentine politics, notably about Peronism; and had an unforgettable solo venture to Iguazú in Argentina and Brazil. All of these adventures and discoveries elapsed over the course of a short six weeks, and Buenos Aires only allowed me a narrow glimpse into the happenings of such an enormous city. I’m excited to return and uncover new treasures and revisit the old.