Citizen Diplomacy Story Challenge 2016 Winners: Ashley Karlsson, Third Place

by Ashley Karlsson, Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to Chile, 2008

I pulled my jacket a little tighter as I walked along the narrow sidewalk.

The dampness in the air sent a shiver through my bones as my host sister and I hurried home before the impending rain.

As we walked, I passed a familiar face. “Buenas tardes,” I said softly and quickly.

“Buenas tardes,” he replied with a smile as we each continued our brisk walks in opposite directions.

In my anxiousness to get home, I didn’t notice the look of confusion spreading across my sister’s face. It wasn’t until we paused at an intersection that I realized something was wrong.

“How do you know that man?” she asked me in Spanish.

“He’s one of my teachers,” I replied.

As an international exchange student in a pilot program in Chile, I was one of five American students taking courses at the University of Valparaíso in Viña del Mar. Each of our courses was taught in the same small attic room by what I presumed to be a local university professor.

“You know who that is though, right?” my sister asked, almost incredulous at my naiveté.

I racked my brain for any minor detail that would explain my sister’s hesitation. I remembered some of the other students talking about our professors the other day.

“He’s in a band, I think?” More of a question than an answer, my sister nodded approvingly.

“Not just any band,” she said. “He’s the lead singer of Congreso.”

The way she said Congreso reminded me of the way people often speak about the Beatles, a sort of untouchable, cultural icon that everybody is supposed to know. Only I had no clue who or what Congreso was.

“Wow, that’s impressive,” I said with feigned understanding. That night, I borrowed my host mom’s laptop to do some homework. Only instead of working on my verbal conjugations, I spent the next few hours trying to find out as much as I could about Congreso.

As luck would have it, my tiny cohort of scholars were indeed students of one of Chile’s most acclaimed folk rock singers, Francisco Sazo. The story behind Congreso’s rise to fame, through the dictatorship of Pinochet to the return of democracy was a true inspiration.

As I dove deeper into the music of Congreso, I also became acquainted with some of the cultural roots that inspired their music. I began reading the poems of Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra, immersing myself in the folk music of Violeta Parra and learning more about revolution, tragedy, and hope through the lens of Chilean history. For me, the music of Congreso brought Chile to life in a way that no textbook or lecture ever could.

Nearly a decade later, the tables have been turned. Although I still consider myself a student in many ways, I now find myself on the other side of the classroom as an English language teacher. I work with international and immigrant students every day, humbly hoping to spark their interest in learning language and culture the same way that Francisco Sazo and the music of Congreso sparked that desire in me.

I learned many lessons during my time abroad, but the one I carry with me always is to take time to listen. There are amazing stories waiting to be told, from peoples and cultures all around the world. And you never know, the next person you meet might just be a rock star.