From Apathy to Agency, How Leaving the U.S. Inspired Me To Change It
I’ve never really known what I want to do, and (spoiler alert), I still don’t.
I chose UC Santa Barbara because I admired its academic rigor and campus culture, and while I had no idea what I wanted to do, I thought the school offered a wide variety of opportunities to figure it out. Through my academics, I began to develop an interest in foreign policy, globalization, and world affairs. I chose to major in Global Studies to further pursue this interest and took classes that made me rethink the way I viewed the world around me. I learned about the relationship between the global north and south, the consequences of hegemonic world powers and the root ideological clashes in global conflicts.
During my third year, I decided to delve even deeper into my search to redefine how I perceived the world by studying in Santiago, Chile. I wanted to hear a story that was completely different than the western-conceptualized discourse of Europe and the United States to gain a more comprehensive perspective of the global sphere. In January 2015, I boarded my plane to Santiago armed with my UCEAP orientation checklist, a Chilean Spanish phrasebook, and a secret desire to find my very own “ah-ha” moment.
The transition was rough, and for months I wandered around only understanding small snippets of conversations and communicating at the level of an average five year old child. I communicated with exaggerated hand gestures and deciphered social cues from subtle changes in facial expressions. I nodded my head politely as my host mom animatedly shared stories with me that I still to this day have no idea what she was talking about. I bought ice cream instead of iced coffee, ordered mayonnaise-only sandwiches instead of sandwiches without mayonnaise, sat in the wrong classrooms for the entirety of lectures without realizing, misdirected cab drivers and somehow managed to add an extra hour onto every one of my ventures in Santiago. I found myself questioning what had prompted me to leave the familiarity of my own cultural understanding and language.
In those first two months I felt defeated, but as I became more comfortable with the language, I also became more aware of the nuances within the Chilean collective identity and historical narrative. I moved into a house with Chilean and international students to acquire a deeper global awareness of contemporary issues. I took classes in Spanish with my Chilean peers in an effort to relearn history from a different perspective, cultivating my own, broader understanding of current events. I began participating in class discussions about the legacy of Chile’s brutal dictatorship, the United States’ deplorable foreign policy during the 1960s-80s and sexuality and reproductive rights in Chile. I was seeing things from a new vantage point, and while the time periods and subject matter were the same as those that I had studied in the United States, the content and perspective were fundamentally different.
Most importantly, I saw firsthand a political tenacity of the Chilean youth that has been so blatantly absent from my generation in the United States. The youth of Chile is so politicized that their passion is almost palpable. It is present in their faces as they march to provide free education, in their voices as they debate the de-stigmatization of sexuality, and in their actions as they work to create a more equal and just society for all. Their collective passion is so loud and commanding that it is impossible to go unheard. While I had spent my entire life questioning what I could do, they had been constantly doing. They discussed, criticized and protested because they truly believed that they could influence policy decisions. This political zeal was so drastically different from the political climate I had grown up in, a culture in which few of my peers felt empowered and inspired to create change in the public sphere.
This contrast between Chilean political inspiration and United States political apathy further solidified in my mind during a conversation I had with some of my housemates. One night we had an informal debate regarding U.S. politics, discussing the corruption of political leaders, the inequality caused by capitalist exploitation, and the imminent threat of someone as misogynistic, ignorant and racist as Donald Trump running for president. With each subsequent question, I felt more and more disheartened by the sheer breadth of the problems at hand. This began to reflect in my answers to their questions as I regurgitated hackneyed U.S. nationalist responses. One of my housemates could sense the disbelief in my babbling and in mid-sentence interrupted me with the question, “well, what the hell are you going to do about it?”
I had nothing to say; I was blind-sided with a question so simple yet so convoluted in its implications. In that instant my “ah-ha” moment came to me as immediately and forcefully as an episode of vertigo. As I sat there contemplating his question, my entire life and culturally learned experiences whirled around me in an intricately connected fury. I had absolutely no idea how to create change because the problems I had seen in my lifetime seemed so systemic, where catcalls were drowned out as mere white noise, paying $30,000 a year for education was somehow seen as a privilege, and blatant bigotry was far too often misconstrued as ‘freedom of speech’. I had grown up in a generation of congressional gridlock and political party parity to the point that my definition of politics revolved more around blocking the actions of the opposition party rather than creating a better, more just United States. The seemingly stagnated social progress of the U.S. made me feel like my vote did not make a difference and that my voice would ultimately be drowned out in a discourse of political party jargon.
I never knew what I wanted to do because I never felt like I had the agency to do it. I never believed my actions and words could actually influence public policy or the way we prioritize different issues. However, seeing how the Chilean youth remained so passionate despite its dark history of dictatorial rule made me intrinsically question the roots of my own disconnect and lack of faith in U.S. politics. Chileans faced the brunt of social inequality and poverty as a direct result of global political and economic exploitation and yet still managed to remain incomparably inspired. I, on the other hand, rather than combating injustice, had been turning a blind eye and allowing myself to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems at hand. Instead of feeling powerless and isolated by the intricacies of implementing public policy, I wanted to feel empowered to influence systemic change. It may be hard, and I may not have a concrete idea of how I want to cultivate social equality both domestically and internationally, but in that moment, I knew I wanted to do something.
Transitioning back to life in the United States, I made a promise to myself that I would emulate the political passion of the Chilean youth that had been such a pivotal inspiration in my life. I continued to take classes that pushed me outside the comfort zone of what I understood, taking steps to relearn history from a different perspective and rethink the way I viewed international relations. I joined the Global Societies Journal as a Content Editor and Blogger to begin publishing my responses to contemporary global issues in a civic forum and making my opinions publicly heard. I also sought out an internship at the advocacy organization CAUSE to create public policy change that ensures the rights of farm workers and other marginalized communities throughout the Central Coast of California. I finally had the opportunity to both speak for something that I believed in and foster grassroots power in historically marginalized communities.
My experience in Chile showed me that I have something to be passionate about and fight for. One day as I joined my fellow students in the Million Student March, I saw the familiar glimmer of passion, agency and hope in the faces of my peers as I did in faces of the Chilean students that had inspired me so deeply. While I may only be starting my journey as a civically-engaged citizen, I know that regardless of the misogyny, inequality, violence and racism plaguing our global society, I will remain optimistically confident in my ability to do and say something about it. Upon graduation, I can say that I’ve finally figured out what I wanted to do: to live every aspect of my life rooted in the agency to create change rather than the apathy to permit injustice.