One of the greatest privileges of fellowship advising is seeing young alumni pursue, achieve, and continue to refine the goals they set for themselves as graduating students. Becca Taylor, a 2013 MU graduate, is an example of an alumna who has been unwavering in her commitment to advancing and protecting human rights within immigrant populations since we first came to know her in the Fellowships Office.
Upon receiving a Fulbright grant to teach English in Bogota, Colombia, in 2013, Becca shared in a news release about her selection that “I’m excited to establish international relationships and see how those will impact me on both an academic and a personal level.” Fast forward five years, and Becca has dedicated her life to advocating for women in Latin America and immigrant communities in the US. She recently provided an update to the Fellowships Office that speaks to her current work in Bogotá, representing clients fleeing domestic violence through a legal internship at the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, and finishing her degree from the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law.
Where are you now and what are you doing?
I am currently in Bogotá, Colombia, for a summer legal internship at an international nonprofit with 501(3)(c) status called Women’s Link Worldwide, which focuses on achieving judicial and legislative change positively impacting women and girls across Latin America and Africa. At Women’s Link, I am responsible for preparing summaries of international judicial decisions concerning women’s rights, building a bank of positive case law concerning gender justice, conducting research on international legal standards affecting vulnerable populations of women, and assisting the legal team in projects focused on sexual and reproductive rights, the role of women in transitional justice, trafficking of women and girls, and women in migration.
At the close of the summer, I will return to USC Gould School of Law to finish my last year of law school. I will graduate in May of 2019, and I hope to find long-term work in Bogotá to continue advocating for the rights of migrants, indigenous peoples, and women and girls.
What fellowship(s) did you receive and when were you selected?
I received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Bogotá, Colombia, in May of 2013.
Please share a little bit about your fellowship experience(s).
I fulfilled my Fulbright ETA at a small university called Institución Universitaria Colombo Americana (ÚNICA) in Bogotá. The institution primarily serves young adult students who are training to become English-Spanish bilingual professors. The student body comprises a diverse range of Colombians from all races and socioeconomic backgrounds, and I had the opportunity to work closely with Colombian, American, and British professors. As an ETA, I created and oversaw the university’s English tutoring program and implemented individual tutoring sessions for 25 different students. I also revised graduate students’ thesis papers and conducted in-person thesis consultations and English training sessions. By the end of the year, I felt such a close, personal connection with my students that I decided to stay on as a full-time staff professor for two more years. (And, of course, I was lucky enough that my host university allowed me to do so.)
What did you find valuable about the process of applying for the Fulbright grant?
The application process was valuable in that it challenged me to fully analyze my personal and professional goals and to determine how the different pieces of my life connected to tell a narrative that was uniquely my own. Sitting down to write my personal essays allowed me to understand how each step I had taken in my academic career had contributed to my identity. In doing so, I gained a tremendous sense of pride in the volunteer work and travel I had accomplished and a renewed dedication to serving Spanish-speaking communities, wherever I ended up working.
How has developing the skill of self-reflection proven to be beneficial in your life?
Self-reflection is of vital importance in the world of law, particularly in the non-profit context. The work is challenging and emotionally draining, the hours are long, and the pay is low. Burnout is, unfortunately, quite common, and it can be easy to feel a sense of desperation at the flaws of the court system and the injustices inherent in the provision of legal services. The process of self-reflection provides a kind of antidote in the face of this frustration. Reflecting on my goals, my privilege, and my connection to immigration and international law has forced me to remind myself, over and over again, why it is that I chose this path. It has reminded me that all of the small sacrifices are worth it to work toward achieving justice for victims of violence and discrimination. I developed many of my skills in self-reflection through the process of applying for a Fulbright grant, and that process has stayed with me to this day.
How have your goals evolved over the years?
My goals have largely remained the same over the years, but my focus has narrowed a bit. I have known since my freshman year at MU that I wanted to work with Spanish-speaking populations in some capacity, and I expected that I would apply for law school immediately upon graduation. A semester abroad in Buenos Aires during my junior year (spring of 2012) and an internship at a women’s rights NGO in Argentina changed my decision to apply for law school at such an early stage. During my senior year, I held off on researching law schools and instead looked for ways to return to Latin America, a continent that I felt a deep connection to and that I knew would help me solidify my knowledge of Spanish. This is where Fulbright came in.
The Fulbright program afforded me the opportunity to spend a year teaching English and immersing myself in Colombian culture upon graduation while I prepared myself to apply for law school. Though I was late to the application process, Tim Parshall encouraged me to take the leap and assisted me in sharpening my essays, which was pivotal in my selection for the Fulbright grant. Upon completion of my Fulbright year, I felt such a connection to Colombia and to its people that I decided to stay on for another two years in Bogotá. My host university, Institución Universitaria Colombo Americana (ÚNICA), graciously extended me a full-time staff position, and I spent the next few years teaching Speech, Pronunciation, and Intermediate English courses. Three years in Bogotá not only afforded me insight into the social and gender inequalities that exist in Latin America but also allowed me to develop proficiency in professional Spanish — two developments that bolstered my confidence in applying for law school.
My experiences in South America fueled my desire to confront the social power imbalances in the United States and to continue fostering connections with Latin American immigrants. I felt I could best achieve these goals through a legal education. During my time at USC Gould School of Law, I have consistently confronted women’s rights issues in the immigrant communities I have served. Last summer, I fulfilled a legal internship at Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, an organization that defends vulnerable immigrants in the Los Angeles area. I built asylum cases for three unaccompanied minors, including a female teenager from Guatemala who had endured sexual trauma. She recounted how a friend who had been raped and impregnated by a gang member was forced to marry her rapist, give birth, and raise the child to protect her family’s name. My client had feared a similar fate. Interviews with her in addition to country conditions research revealed a lack of protections for victims of rape and a continuing tradition of child marriage in many parts of Guatemala. This has resulted in a long cycle of poverty and abuse for Guatemalan girls. As a member of the USC Immigration Clinic this past academic year, I continued to work with female victims of trauma from Latin America. In March, I represented an indigenous mother and daughter fleeing from domestic violence in Guatemala and detained in California. I prepared their declarations, gathered extensive research on violence against women in Guatemala, and conducted a full administrative hearing in front of an immigration judge. The information I collected in preparation for trial emphasized the prevalence of misogyny and intimate partner violence in Guatemalan society, which are exacerbated for impoverished and indigenous women. Although my detained clients won asylum, I am still concerned for the millions of women and girls in Guatemala and other parts of Central America who remain at risk of violence. Many are unable to travel to the United States, and many of those who do are unable to stay.
Recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has undertaken review of Matter of A-B-, a decision in which the Board of Immigration Appeals found that a domestic violence victim was eligible for asylum. Immigration and women’s rights advocates are concerned that asylum protections for such victims may be under attack. Given the prevalence of domestic violence in many parts of Central America and the tenuous protections for such victims in the United States, I feel it is now more important than ever to address the root of the problem. Women’s Link Worldwide, where I am currently fulfilling my summer internship, aims to do such work, and this was what drew me to the organization. Women’s Link serves the same communities of vulnerable women whom I have served in the United States. Through my summer here, I hope to address the root causes of female migration from Latin America to the United States and elsewhere. Upon my return to Los Angeles, I aim to use the research I conduct during my internship at Women’s Link in crafting more effective legal arguments for my female clients in the United States. With greater protection against violence in their home communities and a stronger international network of legal advocacy, I hope that vulnerable girls in Central and South America will no longer be forced to flee their communities. Ideally, upon graduation I will return to Colombia to continue this work. The Fulbright grant opened the door for me to form a strong network of professional connections and to understand firsthand the origin of migrants’ and women’s rights issues. It has profoundly influenced my personal and professional trajectory.
What is the “why” behind your professional goals? What motivates you to do your work?
I come from a place of tremendous privilege: I have always had a safe community, a supportive family, ample educational opportunity. I recognize how fortunate I am – how unjust, nonsensical, arbitrary it is that I was born into this context – and I have a duty to dedicate my life to giving back. I fell in love with the Spanish language in my high school years and seized on it as a chance to connect with new communities, new cultures, and new ideas. In doing so, I gained awareness of a tremendous need for social and legal support, both within the Spanish-speaking immigrant community in the United States and throughout Latin America. My knowledge of Spanish has thus allowed me to fulfill a need, and that drives me every day. As a woman, I am particularly drawn to my female clients and to their stories: the strength, courage, and determination they demonstrate in the face of violence and discrimination is unbelievably inspiring. I am grateful every day that I have the opportunity to work with and for these women.
Becca provided the following alumni update in 2014 after finishing her first year teaching in Bogotá, Colombia at Institución Universitaria Colombo Americana (ÚNICA).
What was your experience with the application process? What was most difficult? What was most rewarding?
I stumbled onto the Fellowships page only a few short weeks before the initial Fulbright deadline, so the application process was a bit daunting at first. In fact, Tim had mentioned to me that most people start preparing their Fulbright application months in advance, going through numerous drafts of their essays in preparation. I was more than a bit late to the party, so I had to write my essays and gather my recommendation letters in an alarmingly short amount of time. However, Tim wholeheartedly encouraged me to apply regardless, and he was of tremendous service to me throughout the process. I would highly recommend that any interested student set up a meeting with him; he has years of experience and a lot of useful advice, especially in regards to the essays.
The most difficult part of the whole process — and the most rewarding — was coming up with a “voice” for myself. It’s important that students have a defined personality and perspective that come through on the application. The Fulbright Commission receives a huge number of applications from talented students nationwide, so it’s extremely important that they understand how each specific student will contribute his or her individual talents to fit into that picture. Tim helped me to narrow my application’s focus to my experience volunteering with Spanish speakers, at home and abroad, which was a common thread throughout my college career. I used my experiences as a way to build a kind of voice in my essays, and it was quite rewarding to be able to define, in writing, my uniqueness as a Fulbright candidate.
Why did you decide on Colombia and have you been happy with your decision?
I chose to apply for an ETA position in Colombia because I’d spent a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina, during my junior year of college. That might seem counterintuitive, but the people who became my closest friends in Buenos Aires were all Colombian natives who had left their country in search of better academic opportunities, so I learned a lot about Colombian culture during those six months. Colombian people are, on the whole, incredibly warm, optimistic and passionate people, so I began to fall in love with the country without having ever visited. When starting the Fulbright application process, I decided I wanted to experience that culture first-hand, as well as help to create more academic opportunities for Colombians in their own country. It’s important for Fulbright to see that each candidate has a reason for applying to a specific country — a link of some kind — and this was mine. I couldn’t be happier with my decision to apply to Colombia. The culture is just as inviting as it was when I experienced it in Buenos Aires. In the short span of a year, I’ve established a huge community of friends and co-workers of all different interests and walks of life, thanks to the incredible warmth and openness of everyone I’ve met.
What has it been like to work as an ETA? What types of activities or projects have you come up with that the students have enjoyed?
From what I understand, ETA responsibilities are entirely contingent upon the university to which each candidate is assigned. My experiences have been quite different from those of some of my fellow Colombia ETAs. I was assigned to work in a small university-level institution of about 150 students in Bogotá, the country’s capital. The students are all studying to become bilingual professors or professors of English. As there is no prerequisite for level of English upon enrollment, there’s a pretty vast range of abilities in the students with whom I work.
My job has been to create individual tutoring sessions for any student struggling with coursework, as well as to correct the thesis papers of graduating students and set up in-person thesis consultations as needed. Students, then, would come to me to set up tutoring sessions of one to two hours each, and every week we would meet in person to review their coursework and practice English. I had a lot of freedom to design grammar or pronunciation exercises as I saw fit, which was both difficult and rewarding. Some of the beginner students needed exercises focused on pronunciation of vowel sounds and basic reading comprehension, whereas the most advanced students benefitted from conversation practice and essay work. Most of my students — beginner or advanced — loved listening comprehension the most. NPR’s Storycorps, an archive of short-recorded conversations between loved ones, was especially fun for us. I had students listen to the recording a few times and answer related conversation and comprehension questions that I created.
What has been the most fulfilling part of your time in Colombia? What have you learned about cultural differences and exchange?
The most fulfilling part of being in Colombia has been the realization that I can conquer any challenge that comes my way, whether personally or professionally. Living in Colombia has pushed me to the absolute limits of my comfort in terms of language — I’ve had to learn how to communicate in Spanish in any context, whether that means at work, conversationally with friends, or to get things accomplished in emergency situations. In terms of friendships, I had to start from square one, as I didn’t know many people livng in Colombia at the time I moved. It’s been extremely fulfilling to go out to bars, restaurants, or various events around the city and be able to meet people and form lasting friendships (all in Spanish!) I’ve also been presented with challenging projects I wasn’t sure I’d be able to accomplish at work, but I’ve proven to myself that I am capable of being an effective and qualified English teacher.
As far as cultural differences, there are certainly things I’ve missed about the States. In terms of gender equality, Colombia still needs a bit of work, and I often found it frustrating or uncomfortable to be yelled at by men on the streets or to come across “machista” points of view regarding the way women should act in society. Additionally, because there is still a lack of diversity in Colombia, people are generally not used to different skin and hair colors or manners of dress, and it is not seen as rude to stare at someone who doesn’t look “normal.” I’ve been stared at — even pointed at, openly — for being tall, pale and blonde. These things took a lot of getting used to, but I had to learn that no one intended to be personally offensive. In the end, it was good for me to experience that discomfort and the initial inability to fit in, since it gave me a much wider perspective and a chance to feel “other,” something I’ve never felt in the States. Learning to cope with cultural differences made me understand that U.S. culture is no more “right” or “valid” than any other culture; it’s just a different way of viewing things.
Have you traveled? Where have you visited?
I didn’t travel outside of Colombia because I didn’t have a lot of extra funds, but I traveled numerous times within the country. I visited the Caribbean coast on three different occasions, spending time in Santa Marta, Cartagena, Barranquilla and Colombia’s desertic northwestern department, La Guajira. I spent two days in the country’s beautiful national park, Tayrona, and even got to take a day trip to a white-sands Caribbean island called Barú.
What have been the greatest challenges for you in Colombia?
As I mentioned before, the greatest challenges for me in Colombia have been adjusting to cultural differences and attempting to overcome language barriers. Colombia is a developing nation; in Bogotá, especially, there is still a lot of poverty — poverty beyond anything we might experience in the States — a lot of underpaid and underfed blue-collar workers and street vendors, and a lot of work- or government-related protests that affect or even stop travel throughout the city. There are not as many air-quality regulations, so dirty buses cause intense air pollution in parts of the city. However, learning to adjust to these differences and understand the politics behind them was more than worth it. I not only came to love Colombia and the intense strength and optimism of its people, but I also learned to recognize and appreciate the privileges I’ve had in the States.
How will this experience prepare you for your next step? Do you know what you want to do next?
I was officially accepted to teach full-time as a professor of English at the university where I carried out my Fulbright grant. I’ll be there for the next year teaching English III, Pronunciation, and Speech. If all goes according to plan, I see myself in Colombia for the next two years, after which time I intend to apply for law school to become an immigration or public service lawyer. My experience in Colombia has given me a worldview I couldn’t have gained If I’d stayed in the States, and I’ve had Spanish language experience that allows me to finally say I’m fully bilingual. Additionally, the responsibilities and work experience I’ve been afforded by the Fulbright grant have given me the confidence and maturity I felt I lacked upon graduation, which has prepared me for three years of law school and a future career in law.