My roommate and I live in what we affectionately call “The Newsroom” of New Dorm; CNN plays as we gather our books for class, a world map hangs above my desk for easy reference and digital subscriptions to The Economist and Foreign Policy hold prominent space on my laptop and in my heart. In conjunction with my work-study in College Communications at Davidson and my past work at a public relations firm, it’s pretty safe to assume that I’m a newshound, especially when it comes to international affairs.
The media is our biggest source of global information, showing us what happens in real time from thousands of miles away, in places most of us only dream of visiting. However, this shouldn’t be the only tool we use to view nations different from our own. In my opinion, one of the most important facets of international relations is public diplomacy: the face-to-face interactions and dialogue that make us realize that we all share common experiences and can learn from one another, regardless of nationality.
Much like my father, I have a tendency to strike up conversations with anyone and everyone I meet. A few weeks ago, I sat at the airport waiting to board a plane back to North Carolina and began to chat with a fellow traveler from Ecuador. We ended up conversing in Spanish for more than an hour about everything from her life as a teacher to Ecuadorian politics to her world travels. As much BBC World News as I wish I had time to watch, that conversation gave me a perspective on Ecuador that no television anchor could ever express with the same level of emotion. Those are the moments, ordinary as they may seem, that help build relationships between nations, one person at a time.
This summer, I interned at the Consulate General of Mexico in Chicago, where I helped process passports, visas and government pensions, improving my Spanish along the way. Despite my near two-hour commute each way from the suburbs, I was thrilled to go to work each and every day, showing up with a huge smile, and often times, baked goods for my lucky coworkers. Visitors to the consulate were often a little perplexed to see this young güerita, or “little fair-complexioned girl,” with sometimes-questionable Spanish skills, working alongside the diplomats from Mexico. Yet, it was incredible to me how easily a smile could transcend cultural and language barriers.
My mentor Ivette was truly an inspiration; she spoke four languages fluently and was incredibly intelligent, but most importantly, she cared. As she helped foreigners obtain visas to live and work in Mexico or ensured pensioners were able to receive their benefits, she took the time to get to know who she was assisting, where they were from, about their families: all things people may not expect from a process that I can only liken to a trip to the DMV. People would leave Ivette’s office in a good mood, not walking out the door before giving her a hug and the compliment of “Muy amable,” signifying how personable and helpful she had been. Her positivity, efficiency and kindness demonstrate perfectly that one doesn’t need to be the Prime Minister or Secretary of State to initiate international goodwill. As I came to learn, we can all start by fostering positive relations on a more personal scale.
Currently, I’m serving as a virtual intern for the U.S. State Department, working with the Consulate General in Monterrey, Mexico, on political and economic analysis of the surrounding region. Together with my Latin American Studies and Political Science coursework at Davidson and my attempts to add more world languages to my communications arsenal (Alguém fala portugês?), I’m striving to become a Foreign Service Officer myself. The best part is that I’m only a sophomore; I still have two more years to go to class, study abroad and absorb as much as possible about our world, with Davidson’s help.
Maybe one day, you’ll see my name in the pages of Foreign Affairs or see me standing behind the podium at a diplomatic press conference. Until then, I’ll try to keep my wanderlust at bay and keep tabs on the world through both the media and conversations with new friends. I can’t wait to see who I meet next.