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CGI Program Transforms Grad

December 20, 2019

The Mount’s Center for Global Initiatives organizes international programs based on campus as well as research and experiential offerings around the globe. The Mount provides a world-class education – on campus as well as internationally – through Study Away programs, such as faculty-led undergraduate research trips and traditional study abroad programs.

Undergraduate research and study away programs are proven high impact learning practices that cultivate student leadership and learning skills, and ultimately career advancement. Research indicates that international student programs increase cultural understanding, improve students’ academic performance and language skills, and make them more attractive to employers due to their cross-cultural exposure in a global economy. 

Rachel Gutierrez ‘08 can attest to how the Mount’s global programs can make an enduring impact on one’s life. Her faculty-led trips to Africa led her to pursue a rewarding career in international development. In her interview with the Mount, Rachel shares how her global learning experiences transformed her life, both personally and professionally.

Rachel Gutierrez takes a scenic hike in Namibia as an undergraduate during the Mount’s faculty-led trip to Southern Africa.
Rachel Gutierrez takes a scenic hike in Namibia as an undergraduate during the Mount’s faculty-led trip to Southern Africa.

What did you study at the Mount and what were your career aspirations?

I studied Political Science and minored in International Relations and Art. As a freshman, I minored in Pre-Law and considered attending law school after graduating. But when my professor invited a panel of lawyers to give a real picture of their professional life, it caused me to question whether law was the best career fit for me.

In my sophomore year, I enrolled in Women and Development, my first international course taught by Dr. Lia Roberts. This class introduced me to a new world of examining the disparate impact that economic development and globalization has on people based on their location, gender, class and other socio-political identities. Dr. Roberts had a way of bringing the class to life through her own research experiences in the field. I was hooked and immediately changed my minor from Pre-Law to International Relations. I didn’t know how making this change would affect my career. Still, I knew that I found something I was curious about that impacted people in countries I had yet to visit. 

What influenced you to travel with the Mount’s global program?

I was part of Dr. Roberts’ first international trip to South Africa and Namibia through a course, The Politics of Southern Africa. I wanted to participate in this trip because it was an incredible opportunity to experience firsthand two countries I learned about in class. It also was my first trip outside of the United States, and being able to travel with Dr. Roberts for a learning experience made it even more meaningful.

My most memorable experiences during our three-week trip are speaking with survivors of Apartheid; being hosted by a Namibian family living in traditional rural housing; visiting Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years; meeting with nonprofit organizations providing HIV treatment and care to poor communities; and hearing about the extraordinary work of USAID.

Because of this experience, I decided to travel to Honduras with an organization called Global Brigades to build water projects in rural communities there.

How have your experiences in the Mount’s faculty-led trips affected your career path?

Three years after I graduated, Dr. Roberts asked me join her on a trip to Ghana to work on another water project with Global Brigades. Although by then I was content working as a real estate agent in Santa Monica, I often found myself recalling my earlier experiences in Africa and Honduras. So I decided to join Dr. Roberts on the trip.

While in Ghana, I saw one of the co-founders of Global Brigades, who remembered me from my work in Honduras. After I told her about my renewed interest in working in international development, she encouraged me to apply for a Public Health Developer position in Ghana. With the support of Dr. Roberts, I applied for the job and got it. Three months later, I moved to Ghana to develop the organization’s Public Health Program.

Had I not participated in the trip to Ghana, I never would have made the career shift from a real estate agent to an international development professional. The trip gave me the courage to pursue a career path that I was hesitant about because I lacked support from my family to live abroad in less-developed conditions and I was unsure where such a career could take me.

Professionally, my time working in Ghana gave me international development experience that is otherwise difficult to obtain. By gaining hands-on experience, I was able to confirm that this is exactly the kind of work that I want to do. It also helped me build an amazing network of passionate, like-minded colleagues who are still very close friends of mine.

How did the Ghana trip inspire you to do the work that you do today?

Working on the water project during my time in Ghana renewed my passion for supporting communities in their efforts to alleviate hardship and develop creative solutions with limited resources. It also gave me an opportunity to get to know a culture through hard work and collaborative relationships. These experiences led me to move to Washington, DC, where I continued working in international development on a USAID global health project for four years. Today, I’m in my second year at the Hertie School in Berlin, Germany, to pursue a master’s degree in Public Policy, with a focus on Health Governance. 

Why do you encourage other Mount students to participate in our global program?

Trips abroad offer students a unique opportunity to get invaluable hands-on experience where they can gain a better understanding of another culture and network with professionals whose work they find interesting. I believe such experiences are powerful mediums for us to learn about ourselves and what we are good at while challenging us in new ways to give us a clearer idea of where we can make a meaningful impact in the world.