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First Person

Learning to Love Latin America

By Allison Irby, MA Spanish: Latin American studies ’06

Allison Irby

Allison Irby in Peru

Allison Irby, MA Spanish: Latin American studies ’06, shares her experiences in the program and how she is using her degree now.

At age eight, I made a friend who changed my life. She didn't speak any English and I didn't speak any Spanish. Our bond made me want to learn Spanish to be able to elevate our friendship.

In high school, I focused my language learning on Spanish, and I continued to study both Spanish language and Latin American/Spanish culture in undergrad by majoring in Spanish with a Latin American studies minor. I studied abroad in Spain, which was another pivotal moment in my life that led me to pursue a job opportunity in Barranquilla, Colombia.

I moved to Colombia soon after undergrad, and I worked as a fourth grade teacher. Every day, I fell more in love with Latin American culture, history, and social identity constructs. Although I quickly became an honorary Colombian and quickly immersed myself in the Colombian culture, upon my return, I realized that before I moved to Colombia, I’d had very little knowledge about the history of the internal conflicts, diversity, and ways that that nation and others like it wanted to grow, share its history, and shape its future.

Even as an outsider, I wanted to take a role in positively shaping that future. To do that, I felt the need to backtrack and capture the important information that I lacked before I leaped into Colombian culture without any solid context or elevated knowledge of the culture and surrounding cultures. After much research into Latin American studies master’s programs, I pursued the MA program in Spanish: Latin American Studies at American University. There were so many schools that offered Latin American studies, but one of the components that made AU's program so unique and enticing was the language component. The Spanish-only approach allowed me to continue to grow as a professional, academic, and language learner through presentations, classroom engagement, and research. Not only was I understanding concepts more deeply, I was able to see Latin America through the language that the Latin American authors and researchers used to depict their experiences and tell their history.

Learning about Latin American culture, politics, and society through the various voices of Latin America without the language filter or translation added another level of intensity to the program that I wouldn't have gotten at any of the other programs I considered. Not only did my experience help me to process my previous experiences living and studying in Latin America, but it also helped me to develop as a professional.

During my two years at American University, I worked for the U.S. Office on Colombia and worked on campus with a think tank that collaborated with the U.S. Border Patrol to develop new-hire Spanish language curricula. Being able to continue to learn about Latin American politics and culture helped me to understand the needs of the populations we'd be serving at the border and incorporate cross-cultural competencies into the design of the curricula.

While at AU, I thoroughly enjoyed the classroom banter and deep discussions with other professionals and academics who were just as passionate about Latin America. Although I enjoyed many of the program courses, the course that made the biggest impression on me was the Cuba Culture and Politics course. Through that course I was able to better understand the intricacies of Cuban history, culture, and society and was thrilled that we used film as the medium to learn about the challenges and beauty of Cuba.

In the summer of 2011, I was invited to conduct an educational program assessment in Cuba. All of the memories of the program—the discussions, the films, the images of the malecón—all came flooding back. Because of this one class, I felt extremely prepared for Cuba and more than anything, I felt connected to Cuba and Cubans because of my intense level of engagement in the course. I would not have been able to process my experience in Cuba the way that I did had it not been for the eloquent teachings of Professor Serra and the enriching discourse that took place with my colleagues so many evenings on campus.

Now, six years after graduation, I am working in international education and in strategy for workforce and professional development. I am also the founder of a nonprofit organization called Globally Grounded, which seeks to diversify education abroad programs by designing programs for underrepresented youth to travel to non-traditional countries of the world and engage in cross-cultural and service learning initiatives. I anticipate initial program development in Latin America in Brazil, Cuba, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Peru. The first Latin American program will work to engage displaced youth from Colombia and establish connections with other displaced youth around the world. My hope is that these programs will be life-changing for the participants and help them see connections across languages and cultures where gaps in cross-cultural learning and understanding now exist.