Majors: Spanish and Government and Legal Studies
Hometown: Glen Ellyn, Illinois
Why did you choose to come to Bowdoin?
I grew up in Chicago, but got it into my head that I wanted to attend college at a small school in New England. During my other college visits, I remember being really shy and self-conscious while walking around with my mom and a prospective student folder. However, when I visited Bowdoin, there was a palpable change in my comfort level. I felt much more self-assured and outgoing because everyone around me seemed to be, too. As I sat outside the library with my mom, Professor Allen Springer stopped to see if we had any questions—he stayed to talk with us for 45 minutes. Now, I talk to him every week because he is my government major advisor. The Bowdoin students I met were equally approachable and welcoming; they reminded me of my friends from home. They seemed unreserved and comfortable with themselves in a way that immediately put me at ease—I could see myself at Bowdoin in a way that I couldn't anywhere else.
Why did you choose your major?
I went to Bowdoin thinking I would walk out four years later a chemistry or English major, but I obviously didn't have my mind completely made up because I ultimately double majored in Spanish and government, the latter with a concentration in international relations. It's not hard for me to explain why: In my first year, I was lucky enough to land in classes with some of the best professors in their respective departments—Professors Springer and Gerald DiGiusto for government, and Professors Carolyn Wolfenzon and Enrique Yepes for Spanish. Their enthusiasm for their respective fields was contagious to the point that now, it's strange to look back and think that I considered a different academic path.
What has been a course you especially enjoyed at Bowdoin?
One of my all-time favorite classes was Engaging Neruda's Canto General, taught by Latin American Studies Program icon Professor Enrique Yepes. We spent the entire semester studying one work: Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's epic poem, Canto General. As someone accustomed to pushing through entire books in one or two class sessions, having the luxury of an entire semester to delve into a text was a completely new experience. In fact, when I signed up for the class, I had my doubts. I was afraid that we would run out of things to talk about or, worse still, that we would end up analyzing Neruda's every word and punctuation mark. I should have had more faith in Professor Yepes, for he brought in fascinating supplemental materials to discuss in relation to the text, and he was extraordinary flexible during class time. Rather than prodding our class discussions to correspond with a fixed agenda, Yepes allowed us to focus on what we found compelling in the text, and there was certainly no shortage of topics to discuss. We went off on historical tangents, engaged in heated political arguments, and discussed the finer points of Neruda's evolving aesthetic. I never wanted to miss a class.
What professor or professors have especially inspired you during your time at Bowdoin?
Professor Carolyn Wolfenzon deserves special mention as a professor who has gone above and beyond in providing me with support and encouragement in my academic pursuits related to Latin America and the Spanish language. I was in the first class Carolyn taught at Bowdoin, and finished my Spanish career in her 300-level seminar titled Imaginary and Real Cities in Latin America. Carolyn's passion for Latin American literature is unrivaled—when you see how genuinely excited she is about the short story we read for class, you can't help but feel the same way and forgive her for never finishing class on time.
Carolyn's enthusiasm cannot be contained within the classroom—she's that Bowdoin professor who invites the class to her house for dinner. When I got back to campus after my semester abroad in Chile, Carolyn took me out to coffee because she wanted to hear about my experience, and when I told her I was applying for a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English and study in Uruguay, she put me in contact with colleagues in Uruguay who could help strengthen my application. Carolyn has had a monumental influence on the trajectory of my academic career, and I'm not the only one in the Spanish department who feels this way.
Which staff members have you connected with most?
In addition to the obvious advantages of living in Coles Tower—going to brunch in flip-flops and shorts during a blizzard, having 24-hour access to most of my friends, as well as printers—another perk was bonding with Sonya Morrell, our housekeeper. Over the course of the year, I felt like I also got to know Sonya's kids from the stories she's told me, even though I've never met them—and Sonya knows more about my family and friends than I probably should have told her! My conversations with Sonya, as well as the cards and candy she leaves for us on holidays, are things I'm definitely going to miss.
Alex and the Bowdoin group at the Student/Farmworker Alliance headquarters in Immokalee, Florida (2010).
What extracurricular or work experiences have you had at Bowdoin?
I've tried out many activities over the course of my four years. I've tutored with the Portland Housing Authority, played intramural dodge ball, worked with the Volunteer Lawyers Project, improved my flexibility through the yoga club, and was even on the women's squash team my sophomore year. (Although I played tennis all through high school, I'd never played squash before in my life!)
Since my sophomore year, I have worked as a writing assistant in the Writing Project. Working closely with student writers at all stages in the writing process has been an important part of my academic experience—I've learned a lot from reading my fellow students' work and discussing their ideas with them.
Aside from my work with the Writing Project, my most meaningful extracurricular experiences at Bowdoin have been service oriented, coordinated through the McKeen Center for the Common Good. My junior year, I was lucky enough to go to Ibarra, Ecuador, on an Alternative Spring Break trip. For a week, my group lived with host families and helped local volunteers build a playground at a nearby elementary school. This year, with Elaine Tsai '10, a friend I made on the Ecuador trip, I co-designed and co-led an Alternative Spring Break trip to Immokalee, Florida. There we learned about the issues faced by migrant farm workers and volunteered with several local social service agencies including Immokalee Housing & Family Services. I also volunteer weekly at Lincoln Middle School in Portland as an academic mentor with the Make It Happen! program.
Alex and friends enjoy lunch and a spectacular view of the city from the top of Cerro Concepción during her semester abroad in Valparaíso, Chile (2008).
Did you study abroad during your time at Bowdoin?
I spent my first semester of junior year in Valparaíso, Chile, at the School for International Training's Culture, Development and Social Justice program. I was initially attracted to the program because of its focus on social engagement and service work. Throughout the course of the semester, I was afforded the opportunity to visit La Victoria on the outskirts of Santiago, and learn about the efforts that this historic community has made to preserve the dignity of those living in poverty. I stood inside Villa Grimaldi, one of the torture sites established by Pinochet's secret police, and listened as a former victim explained that she felt obligated to recount her story, as painful as it was for her to relive, because truth is the first step toward justice. In addition, I volunteered on a weekly basis with Taller de Aprendizaje Forestal, an after-school center for at-risk children just outside Valparaíso. My semester in Chile also proved to be a defining influence in my academic career, as it inspired me to pursue an honors thesis on U.S. foreign policy toward Chile under Salvador Allende and Venezuela under Hugo Chávez.
What have you done during your summers?
For my first two summers, I interned at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Chicago as part of the New Americans Democracy Initiative. One highlight of my work was attending naturalization ceremonies in Chicago and registering brand-new U.S. citizens to vote as they left the courthouse. Almost all of the new citizens with whom I worked were so excited to finally have their voices heard, especially in the months leading up to the 2008 presidential election. Last summer, I explored my interest in law by interning with Judge Kathleen Kennedy of the Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago. Working closely with Judge Kennedy in such a fast-paced environment was a great experience to have as an undergraduate; I even got to be her campaign manager when she ran for appellate court last fall.
What is your favorite Bowdoin memory?
This past February, a torrential downpour flooded the entire campus and cut off electricity to Coles Tower. Since we clearly couldn't work on our papers that were due the next day, my friend and I decided to take advantage of the fantastic puddles that had accumulated. Even though the temperature outside was just above freezing, we changed into shorts, rain boots and raincoats and sprinted around the entire Quad in search of the biggest, juiciest puddle. When we returned covered in mud, soaking wet, and out of breath, we got more than a couple strange looks—but I think people were probably just jealous that they hadn't thought of the idea first.
Alex and Elaine Tsai '10 with their host family during their Alternative Spring Break trip in Ibarra, Ecuador (2009).
What are your plans for after graduation?
Although I'm definitely not done with school, since studying abroad in Chile, I've wanted to live and work in South America after graduation. Luckily, that dream will soon become a reality: I was awarded a Fulbright grant to teach English and take political science classes in Uruguay. I'll be there for eight months, starting in March 2011. While in Uruguay, I hope to improve my Spanish and become immersed in South American culture and politics.
What advice would you give to a prospective student or first-year about the Bowdoin experience?
As a first year, it's pretty easy to make friends quickly—you click with your roommates, classmates, or people from your sports team. There's no doubt that some of the friends you make during the first week of college (or, in my case, on prospective students' day!) could remain your best friends through graduation. However, all first years should continue to reach out and make new friends throughout their first year and beyond. You're surrounded by an entire campus of funny and intelligent and interesting people—get to know as many as you can!
What quirky or fun thing do you wish you had known before you came to Bowdoin?
I wish I'd known how many things there are to do in midcoast Maine. In my four years as a Bowdoin student, I've climbed on the rocks at Reid State Park, grilled at Popham Beach, practiced yoga at Wolfe's Neck Woods, eaten lobster on the dock at Five Islands, explored the Commonground Fair, and picnicked on Bailey's Island.
Story posted on September 17, 2010
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