By Andrea Villasmil, CIEE Exchange Ambassador Grant Recipient and CIEE Work & Travel USA alum, 2015
Blending your passions is the key to success. In college, I took a course called ‘Existential Psychology’. I vividly remember one of the assignments involved determining your passions and finding a way to combine them into your dream career. I wrote down three ideas: people with special needs, writing, and traveling. Now, two years after graduating as a Clinical Psychologist, I can gladly say I’m on the path to turn those ideas into a reality.
In February 2018, I received the opportunity to work as a paraprofessional in the school Academia Cotopaxi. I currently support Lucas, a 9 year old boy on the Autism Spectrum. After a few days of witnessing the kindness of teachers and students towards Lucas, I received a spark of inspiration. This boy had touched my heart and I wanted to share a glimpse of his story with the world. I decided to write a children’s book that involved the themes of inclusion, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and friendship. Through this book, children with ASD would be further represented in literature and all children would benefit from learning about inclusion and how our differences make us unique.
I had the inspiration and motivation. However, I was not aware that I also had fear. It took me around 10 months to be able to conquer my fear to do this project. I was dreading failure, and this was keeping me from moving forward. Then, I decided to take action. The first step involved developing skills to write for young readers. I managed to do this through the courses offered in Coursera as well as MasterClass. During this time, I also read books and articles about ASD and inclusive education. Most importantly, I became a vivid observer of Lucas’ everyday life, in order to learn from his experiences. The next step was to start writing. Fear was still knocking on my door. Then, I encountered a quote that said: “If you have fear to move forward, move forward with fear.” I sat on my desk and told myself I wouldn’t stand up until I finished writing. That is exactly what I did. Taking the first step is the hardest, but the most important one as well.
Once I took that first step, everything began to fall into place; as if the Universe was just waiting for me to begin to walk in order to show me I could actually run. About two weeks after finishing the first draft, to my surprise, Academia Cotopaxi brought a guest speaker to our facilities, the renowned author, Linda Sue Park. I attended her conferences and found my way to talk to her in private and ask her a few questions about becoming an author. The lesson I learned from her is that more than writers, we are re-writers. After that first draft, came the second, and third, and so on - I’ve honestly lost count.
During the process, I decided part of the proceeds of the book would go to support children with special needs from low socio-economic backgrounds. This is when the bigger picture of the project began to come into place. I showed Lucas’ mom, whom I have a great relationship with, one of the many drafts of the book. She fell in love with it! In 2013, she founded a Non-profit Organization, called Camina Conmigo, which is dedicated to creating awareness about inclusive education in Ecuador. We decided to partner for this project.
Now, we just needed funding. I was confident I would find it. While checking my emails around March 15, 2019, there, in front of me, was the opportunity of a lifetime: The CIEE Exchange Ambassador Grants. That was it, that was the next step. I was smiling and laughing until, I saw the application due date: March 31, 2019. Fear struck again. I had two weeks to pull it all together. I utilized my existing network in order to bring the project together. People are willing to support you in your dreams if you simply ask, believe me! One of my colleague’s offered to contact me with a friend of hers, an esteemed Ecuadorian children’s author, Maria Fernanda Heredia. I read her books as a child and I was nervous to contact her, nonetheless, I emailed her and she was extremely kind and volunteered to read and edit my book. One of my older sisters is a Digital Animator and Illustrator and I’ve always admired her work. I didn’t think twice and asked her to join my project. She contacted me with a friend of hers, a book designer and he joined us as well. Then I met with a publishing company, owned by a friend’s family, and asked them to be a part of this. They all gave me a budget and I planned the application around that.
The night before the deadline, I stayed up until 4AM finishing the last details of the application and editing the video. When I finished, I shared the video with six people, only six. I turned off my phone and turned it on the next day when I got back home from a meditation retreat I had booked months ago. I was flooded with messages and kind words. My family had shared the video with some people, and these people with others. The video was all over Facebook and it now had more than 600 views on YouTube! I was overwhelmed with support and I am grateful for this, because it made the wait for the grant response easier to withstand.
In mid-May I received another email from CIEE and the first word I read was: Congratulations! I was the recipient of a “Changemaker in Action” grant. I cried and laughed and everything in between. CIEE has been extremely supportive and provided guidance throughout this entire grant recipient process. I received the funds for the project and, at present, we’re currently in the process of illustrating the book.
The most important aspect of this project development has been to take it one step at a time. This allows me to be organized and give 100% on each stage. There is so much to do for this project, from the illustrations to designing, publishing, the book release event, marketing, selling the books, managing the fund to subsidize evidence-based interventions, contacting therapists, and so on. Fear hasn’t left completely, and it probably never will. I still worry something might not work out, or that the book won’t sell. I manage to keep myself focused on the present in order to deal with what I need to as I go. I’m confident in myself that if I have made it this far, I will finish the race!
I have learned a lot through this wonderful journey. I am grateful for the opportunity CIEE has given me as well as the chance to share my journey with you. Thank you for reading up to here, I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Below are a few lessons/advice I have learned along the way which have worked for me. Take your idea and make it your reality!
Know yourself: what are your passions and interests? What are you good at? How can you combine them to do something you love?
Observe your environment: inspiration is born by being present in our surroundings.
Have a meaningful purpose: THIS will keep you moving forward no matter what.
Fear is an important part of the journey: fear is the compass that tells you that what you’re about to do is important. Go ahead. Take fear by the hand and start walking, as long as you are moving forward, that is all that matters. You will observe fear get smaller as you go.
Determine what is under your control: whatever is under your control, do it! Read, explore, talk to people who know about the topic you’re passionate about, navigate the internet, observe.
Prioritize: everyone has work, studies, family, friends (and you need these for a balanced life); use some of your leisure time that you use to watch TV or scroll through social media, in order to build your dreams, goals and projects!
Commit: to YOURSELF. It’s very easy to procrastinate when you have a fear of failure. Commit anyway, this is the cornerstone for your idea to become a reality.
Time management: if you have to wake up at 5AM, you have to wake up at 5AM to make it happen. Try to balance your time and put daily deadlines and routines in order to remain focused and proactive.
People will support you: don’t be afraid to reach out and put yourself out there, you never know who might take your hand. Your network grows as you connect with people, they will introduce you to their network, and so on. If you are passionate about something, it becomes contagious and people will want to join you.
Remain vigilant of opportunities: having a goal in mind will instantly make you more aware of any opportunities that may arise.
Remain connected to alumni networks: in relation to the point above, many opportunities come from previous organizations and networks you’ve been involved in.
Think about the effect: who or what will your project/dream/goal benefit? Try finding something or someone other than yourself that your project can positively benefit. This will also keep you motivated through the process!
Ask questions/talk to mentors: find people you admire and people who have already pursued their dreams. Ask them questions and receive their guidance. There is always something to learn!
Be a leader and build a community: to me, a leader is someone who has an inner drive to pursue a goal. It is someone who understands their strengths as well as their weaknesses, and can identify the strengths of others in order to compensate for her or his own weaknesses. It is someone who can motivate a group of people and bring out the best in them. Believe me, you cannot do it on your own (for example, I can’t draw!). Be a leader and form a crowd of individuals willing to put in the work by joining strengths.
Enjoy the ride: the process of building your dreams is like a rollercoaster. Enjoy every emotion, person, situation, unexpected turn of events, and most importantly, believe in yourself and enjoy the view!
Thank you for your time - now go on and begin to walk towards your goals!
To learn more about the CIEE Exchange Ambassador Grants, please visit our website.