My friends were all telling me about their summer internships working for start-ups, investment banks, and consulting companies. “What are you doing, Leah?” they asked.
For the longest time, I’ve responded, “I’m going to Peru,” without really knowing why I was choosing to run after two-year-olds with runny noses instead of poring over spreadsheets and analyzing credit margins in air-conditioned comfort.
In Peru, I am working with a small NGO in Huancayo called Expand Peru to start a youth group for rural teenage girls, where they can learn vocational and business skills to start their own microenterprises. I have not started the youth group yet (we are still in the publicity-generating phase), so for the past two weeks, I have been tutoring at an orphanage and playing with kids at the Casa de Bebes, a government-funded daycare program for children aged six months to three years living in extreme poverty.
Immersing myself in a foreign culture, riding public transportation every day with other Peruvians, and attending the village’s annual festival for their patron saint Peter has provided a myriad of answers to the question of why I am here:
I won’t always be this free and financially able to travel. When I speak to recent graduates, one of their biggest regrets is that they didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to travel before settling into a cubicle and 100-hour work week. Having just finished my first year of college, I do not have the pressure (yet) of searching for a job or raising a family. As a student, I am also eligible for grants from my university to cover travel, room, and board. Most schools have programs to offset the cost of nonpaying internships.
There is no better way to learn a new language. Volunteering in Peru is cheaper and more effective than attending Spanish classes at my university or enrolling in a language school. Not only am I forced in my day-to-day interactions to practice Spanish, but I receive, through my home-stay, an opportunity to sample Peruvian cuisine, experience life without hot water and Internet access (not exactly a highlight, but necessary if I want to better understand how the majority of the world lives on a daily basis), and meet other volunteers who care about actively engaging in the world.
This is who I want to be. In a few years, I may want to be a financial analyst, entrepreneur or marketing manager, but right now my first priority is to make a difference and learn as much as I can. As of yet, I have not experienced any greater reward than hearing the girls at the orphanage call me “Mamita” or the sticky-fingered toddlers compete for the chance to sit on my lap.