My horse saw them out of the corner of his eye and shied at the sheets of paper fluttering in the wind. I jumped to the ground and dislodged a stack of yellowing birth certificates from the spines of a cholla cactus: three young women from a tiny town in Michoacán, Mexico, three identities aban- doned in flight, or desperation, or surrender.
Riding half-trained horses for eight hours a day under an unforgiving sun, dodging drug traffickers and making $800 per month was not the career I had envisioned as a student at Wesleyan, or the moment I expected to discover the direction of the rest of my professional life. But, as I stood in that dry wash less than 100 feet from the border with Mexico that day in 2004, I realized that I needed to understand what had happened to make those women risk everything on a journey toward what they hoped was a better life.
Walking across the stage to receive my diploma in 2003, I could not have imagined all of the strange, challenging, and wonder- ful places my education would take me. At Wesleyan, I majored in University Studies, which allowed me to create my own major out of a diverse array of classes from the English, Psychology, and Philosophy departments. I rode on the equestrian team, studied abroad in France, and helped found the nationwide Peaceful Justice movement in the wake of 9-11. I was privileged to have access to an education at Wesleyan that recognized that creative exploration is a key component in the development of innovative minds.
Since graduating from Wesleyan in 2003, I have done contract work for Google and served fancy coffee drinks in San Francisco, worked with migrant students in Massachusetts, studied agricultural cooperatives in Guatemala, and trained horses in Arizona, among other things. Within two years of quitting my job as a wrangler, my life was dramatically altered by a diagnosis of advanced chronic Lyme Disease. Although this illness can be debilitat- ing, it has also helped me to focus on living my life in service of my values.
Now, most of my working hours are spent trying to get a phone connection to Zimbabwe, meeting with women’s organizations in Guatemala, or waiting in airport security lines. For the last couple of years, I have managed AGALI, a United Nations Foundation-funded program that builds the capacity of local organizations in Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa to advocate for the needs of girls and young women (www. agaliprogram.org). I hope that in a small way I am helping to create alternatives for young women like those whose birth certificates I still keep in one of my dresser drawers.
In addition to my work with AGALI, this year I realized one of my dreams when I co- founded a nonprofit here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Project Aruna (www.projectaruna.org) is dedicated to empowering urban youth to create meaningful change in their own communities and to collaborate with young people working for sustainable change in other countries. In June, we completed our first service learning trip to Guatemala with a group of high school students who have suffered from extreme poverty, gang violence, and neglect, and have emerged with a thirst to experience the world. As I watched one of our students standing in front of a full classroom teaching the numbers in English, while a young girl wrote out 1 to 10 in the indigenous mam language next to him, I was reminded of the liberating promise of education for all of us, and especially for those who have been denied the right to learn.
Although the threads that have anchored the last decade of my life to the skills I learned at Wesleyan might not be immedi- ately obvious, it has always been clear to me that a rigorous liberal arts education is what prepared me for the unpredictable nature of life after graduation. Wesleyan offered me the freedom to be intellectually curious, and taught me that the pursuit of justice and equity was a labor of both the mind and the spirit. Although my day-to-day work draws very little on the specific knowledge I gained at Wesleyan, I have found immense value in being able to think and express myself clearly, in challenging myself to take on more than I think I can handle, and in working to achieve some measure of peaceful justice. These are some of the skills that my Wesleyan educa- tion taught me, and that I have carried forward into the rest of my life. UPFRONT