For Rachel Monteagudo, the world is her oyster. There is nothing impossible for this girl. A globetrotter with a matching heart of gold, Rachel is changing the world one day at a time. Currently working as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, Rachel's philanthropic and generous spirt is allowing her to impact the lives of students in Guayaquil. Rachel is our #WCW because of her courage, curiosity, and caring personality that will infectiously continue leaving a positive influence on the lives of many around the world.
“Finding your voice sometimes takes decades. So I guess I consider myself lucky to have experienced so much, so quickly that has allowed me to grow into my own. But wow, do I have a lot left to learn.”
1. What's your story? What makes you unique?
What makes me unique are my reactions to some of my lowest points –the accidents, the mess-ups, the getting lost, the uncomfortable times of transition. These are the times where I grow the most (and laugh the hardest once I have lived to tell the tale).
I started working when I was 15, so I learned a lot from being a cashier at Target and serving late-night buffalo wings to drunk men. I have also traveled a good bit, and had the opportunity to meet lots of interesting people. Many times, these are the same people who invite me to share with them. I have been very blessed in that respect. So really it may be the people who surround me that are the most interesting?
When I was younger, I remember my high school volleyball coach picking two setters for our JV team. He picked a girl named Jill because she “has the best setting hands on the team” and me “because everyone likes you”. While that wasn’t the beginning of my Olympic career, I did go on to be an All-Region setter. This is a funny metaphor for the person I am today, because nothing has ever come easy to me, but I am a very hard worker and generally a good team player.
2. What motivates you?
I feel very motivated by success, or fruition of a vision. I can see exactly how I want things and I work hard to bring them to light. This also relates creatively, as I often dabble in different crafts. Often, I feel the same frustration mentioned by Ira Glass in this video.
I am also extremely inspired by intergenerational relationships. I LOVED listening to my first-wave feminist teachers, and thinking about the connections to my generation today.
Another personal example – when I was in grad school, I was one of the youngest in my cohort. One man who started the Arabic language training school in the State Department in the 1960’s took interest in me. He was retired and sitting in on classes for free. He really liked what I had to say and began to sponsor my reading list. Whatever I wanted to read. Book after book. And finally a $150 Amazon gift card when I graduated. We had no relationship outside of school but as long I kept reading, and reported summaries back, that was all that mattered. Even today, we share articles and debate over email. This relationship is so special to me, because it is one of mutual respect (although I feel I have not earned it).
This experience relates to what I’m doing now as a teacher in the Peace Corps. In a world where so many people are saying these kids won’t make it, I want to be the one that says they will. Sometimes it just takes the support of one respected elder.
3. Who is a hero of yours?
My grandmothers are my biggest heroes and I consistently draw from their strength and generosity. One of them was a single mom working three jobs to stay afloat, the other was a refugee from Cuba who completely started over when she was in her 30’s. Both of them are my example of resilience and integrity.
4. Give us a road map of your career. How did you get to where you are today?
I followed a pretty normal American track – high school, university to study International Affairs and Latin American and Caribbean studies, and grad school to study Conflict Analysis and Resolution, with odd jobs and internships in between, but the defining question for me is - When did I find my voice? When did I stop being afraid to share my opinion amongst colleagues? When did I realize that I had something good enough to contribute in the first place?
Well, I had my own Eat, Pray, Love moment of struggle, solitude, and growth. The beginning of my “coming-into-voice” started when I moved to DC. Amongst my grad school colleagues, I was one of the youngest and constantly intimidated. On paper, they were definitely better-educated, better-traveled, and already had my dream job. Many worked and thought within establishment-type processes and used a Cold War-era lens. Since I had not been bred within these walls, I used different types of analysis, I was less cynical, I questioned things that were accepted to be truth. (I definitely wasn’t the only one thinking this stuff, it’s just that I said it).
This really upset some older men in my cohort. I think my questions really tugged at some of their insecurities. On different occasions, I was screamed at in front of the class or within small groups. I almost cried multiple times out of humiliation, and I grew tremendously (*It’s important to note that our discussions were deeply personal, about relevant conflicts, with students from all over the world, and after reading deeply troubling materials. This was no ordinary Masters degree).
Then, the summer of 2015, I went to Jogjakarta, Indonesia to do my ethnographic research credits. My interest was the collective mobilization of rural organic farmers. I was given tons of freedom by the program and sped off with a translator to conduct interviews. During this time, most Indonesians were celebrating Ramadan, which meant that the people I needed to talk to were working long hours in the rice fields without food or water. I thought that chatting with a random girl like me would be the LAST thing they would want to do, but surprisingly, I was met with kindness. I was even invited to spend a weekend with activists in Java doing amazing work. The research was humbling and inspiring in a way I had never anticipated. For all anthropology majors, you know what I’m talking about.
Throughout my months of backpacking eastward in Indonesia, I was constantly tested physically and mentally. I saw people dying in a shantytown fire right next to my hostel. I witnessed difficult discussions between people from Bali (Hindu) and people from Java (Muslim). I practiced yoga and learned how to SCUBA dive from locals in crazy current. And I got a weird foot infection that ended in the removal of six of my toenails without anesthetic. I cried a lot at night thinking about what the hell I was doing there, but during this time of loneliness and fear, again, I grew
When I got back to DC to finish my last semester, I felt refreshed with a new sense of purpose, but I was smacked in the face with a new round of tuition payments. I picked up two jobs in addition to my internship, and worked myself to death. For the first time in my life, I experienced depression after weeks of anxiety about schoolwork and finances. I tried EVERYTHING, except get professional help, and this was my big mistake. This semester of extreme stress and loneliness was my most difficult challenge to overcome yet.
That leads me to where I am today, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador and a place hotter than the sun. So much of who I am today, I owe to my two year period of rapid transition in Washington, D.C. (and Indonesia). I am now very unafraid to speak up, to share in large groups and to make decisions. Finding your voice sometimes takes decades. So I guess I consider myself lucky to have experienced so much, so quickly that allowed me to grow into my own. But wow, do I have a lot left to learn.
5. What's your future plan? Your goals?
After I finish up with my Peace Corps service, I hope to road trip down to Patagonia for 5-6 months before spending time with family and friends in Atlanta in 2019. After surviving a 7.8 earthquake in April and spending lots of time alone here, I understand that loved ones are most important.
After that, who knows? Now that Cuba has opened up, I would love to meet my relatives in Santa Clara. I have often thought it would be interesting to do a visual diary on the experience – my Communist family mending ties with my non-Communist family, and then all the young ones like me, where do we fit? A documentary is definitely on my to-do list but I want to read up a bit more on ethics, find grant money, and really commit.
Another option is to get to work right away for the government. I will have a non-competitive government status from Peace Corps for one year, which means my resume moves a little bit higher in the pile for all federal agencies.
A few weeks ago, I attended the UN Habitat III Conference in Quito which focused on urbanization and sustainability. I listened to a panelist who worked for the US Dept. of Health speak on health inequalities among families in Brooklyn based on race. It was deeply troubling. Working on the intersection of health and racial justice (especially now, after the election) would be an honor.
Lots of ideas, I know, but I have realized that the skills I have acquired outside of the US are actually better suited for inside the US because as long as I study a foreign culture, I will never understand the facets well-enough to create any kind of sustainable development. (You learn that the hard way in Peace Corps, after giving everything to a project and watching it flop). The best I can be is a facilitator among local partners, a project overseer, an evaluator.
6. If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?
Listen before you speak. One of the most valuable but difficult pieces of advice to live by.
7. What is something you feel strongly about ( a cause, belief, etc. )?
My response to this has changed greatly now that Trump has won the presidency. I am now fearful for any friend with a minority status. I am most passionate about making these people feel safe, included and, more so, wanted. They are truly part of why we are so great/ have been so great.
Additionally, one injustice that has affected nearly all of my personal and financial decisions has been student loan debt. Owing money for my education is one of my largest stressors and will probably determine my next job choice. Shame on United States government for failing to cap university prices, benefitting from my loans and then charging me interest while I serve in a federally-sponsored program.
8. What's one of the coolest things you've ever done?
Last summer I went SCUBA diving in Komodo National Park. It was like being in space –all I could hear was the sound of my own breathing. As we submerged, I was terrified because I knew if my flashlight burnt out, I would be stranded in open water. My dive guide instructed for all of us to kneel down on a sandbar and put the flashlights to our chests to cover the lights.
All of a sudden phytoplankton surrounded us. They looked like tiny aliens, similar to a jellyfish but with their outlines flashing in green and white. They had trapped the light of our flashlights and now glowed in the black ocean. It was unreal.
9. Anything we haven't asked that you'd like to talk about.
A lot of people ask me what it’s like being in the Peace Corps. I’m not sure if they are interested because they want to do it or because they strongly do not. Whichever way, most people could handle it. My life is much slower here and even though safety is a great concern, I pass most the days feeling a bit bored. Traveling can be expensive so I have spent a lot of time reading, watching movies, cooking, and working out.
That being said, of course, there are inconveniences. One of the hardest parts of my life here is sleeping when its 90 degrees at night. Or living without processed foods like peanut butter and cheese. Everything else –communication barriers, different work environments, different concepts of time and space, and classes of 50 kids – is just part of the job. If anyone has more questions about my service, feel free to reach out!
If you would like to reach out to Rachel Monteagudo for mentoring/networking opportunities,
you can reach her HERE. You can find more pictures of Rachel's adventures below.