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Gabrielle Gorder

Featured Professional: Gabrielle Gorder

After graduation in May, Gabrielle went straight to Andahuaylillas in the rural highlands of Peru's Andes mountains.

SOC Graduate Produces Film, Articles on Her Andes Experience - by Kari Barber

WASHINGTON, 1 December 2010 -- Speaking Quechua, doing cartwheels in the Andes. Since graduating from American University’s School of Communication in May of this year, Gabrielle Gorder's life has been one adventure after another – not all of them good.

The former AU gymnast is backpacking around South America, writing newspaper articles and finishing up a documentary that she shot herself. Raised in Hanover, Massachusetts, Gabrielle described how she came to this not-so-typical career path during a recent e-mail interview.

“Work abroad has always been one of my dreams,” she said. “But not because I like to travel - I have discovered while backpacking through South America that I prefer to spend more time in a place and really get to know the culture and people rather than to travel rapidly just to see tourist attractions which just leave me unsatisfied.”

Gabrielle Gorder

After graduation in May, Gabrielle went straight to Andahuaylillas in the rural highlands of Peru's Andes mountains. Gabrielle was a broadcast journalism major at AU, but she knew that she would need to find other ways to immerse herself in local culture while writing her articles, blogs and filming. Gabrielle began volunteering at the Q'ewar Project, a social and economic initiative that aims at empowering local women. By hand-sewing dolls, the women can earn a steady income. This enables them to be more independent, and for those who are in a physically abusive relationship it can help them live on their own. It was through her volunteer work with the project that Gabrielle found inspiration for a documentary film.

“Each and every one of the women became a sister or a mother figure for me. I really loved them and my motivation was to complete a documentary that represented them,” she said. “So I started interviewing, translating, filming, writing a script and editing. It was hard to do it single handedly.”

Gabrielle says she was able to make a film about the local women's lives using skills that she learned as a broadcast journalism major at AU. There were always other challenges, she says, that she had to figure out for herself. In particular she struggled with audio.

“There was almost always wind in the Andes so the audio sounded bad, but the women did not want to do interviews inside where the others could listen to them. Almost all of them cried during their interviews when they told me about their lives,” Gabrielle said. “The background of the Andes was too beautiful to just do interviews inside, so I really had to play with the audio. Also most of the women spoke very softly.”

Gabrielle says the film, 30 minutes in length, is one of her proudest achievements. The Peruvian English-language newspaper, Living in Lima, plans to feature the film on its web site.

Living in Lima also has published several articles Gabrielle has written. Her relationship with the paper stretches back to her time at AU. Gabrielle contacted the newspaper's editor as part of an assignment for Professor Bill Gentile’s Foreign Correspondence course. The editor suggested Gabrielle pitch stories to him if she moved to Peru. She did, and he accepted her stories.

One of her articles was about a major Inca festival that attracts tourists from around the world each year, but which has become so expensive to travel to that many locals can no longer attend. Gabrielle also wrote about life in the countryside and planting corn – an activity she has had the opportunity to experience first-hand on several occasions. While living abroad has long been her dream, living locally has been equally important to her, she says.

“I remember Professor Bill Gentile from the Foreign Correspondence course telling us that too often journalists go to report on other countries but they stay in hotels where there are other correspondents. The problem is that they don't really get to know the situation on the ground. They know what officials tell them and what experts tell them,” she continued, “But if I am going to write an article on life in the Andes I am going to talk to the farmer. Better yet I am going to work with him in the fields. Better still, I'll drink chicha with the farmer and his family and talk to him about what he thinks about what's going on in his country or his village.”

Gabrielle took the importance of local relationships to heart and even coached a nearby gymnastics team. She said some of her fondest memories in Andahuaylillas were teaching the children of the Q'ewar Project women to do somersaults and cartwheels while she was watching them so their mothers could work. She said the women laughed seeing their children flip upside down.

To build close relationships like these, learning the local language was essential for Gabrielle. She has studied both Spanish and now Quechua. She strongly recommends that students interested in working abroad take advantage of study abroad programs while in college and learn a foreign language. Gabrielle studied in Costa Rica.

She says the best time to set out to live abroad is right after graduation.

“I was a little hesitant at first because of course the norm is to find a steady job and start saving up money, but I felt that that wasn't right for me,” she said. “The way I look at my time abroad is, sure, I'm not saving up for retirement but my experience here was the best investment I could have made. Not only when I apply for a job in the US will there be something on my resume that sets me apart from the other candidates, but it's really given me a new perspective on life.”

So what has been the bad part of all of this? Gabrielle did have her passport stolen recently. It happened in a bus station in Arequipa in southern Peru. Someone tapped her on the shoulder and showed her a credit card asking if she had lost it. Gabrielle knew it was a trick and quickly turned back to her luggage, but the man's accomplice had already snatched the small bag with her passport in it. Her boyfriend, an American who has been traveling with her, went on a local radio show hoping the thieves would give their passports back, but it didn't work. Gabrielle says she will now have to pay for a new one and wait to receive it which could take some time. 

“I was really untrusting afterwards and just had the general attitude that everyone was out to take advantage of me,” she said.

But in the end she knew this couldn't overshadow the good experiences she has had.

Gabrielle Gorder

“I always try to stop myself and think, yes, there are some bad people here [Peru], but for every bad person I've met, how many wonderful, caring and honest people I've met,” she said.

Gabrielle has not yet earned money from her articles. The road to being a freelance journalist is a tough one, and she hopes the stories she has written so far will open doors to paid work.

What are Gabrielle's ultimate career goals?

“I think I am someone that wants to have many careers in my lifetime. Like a cat has nine lives,” she said. Since graduating Gabrielle has also traveled in Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile in addition to Peru. 

Read about Gabrielle Gorder's experiences and see clips from her documentary film at her blog www.gabriellegorder.wordpress.com.