My Life Journey: Activist to Academic

Marcha por la vida y la convivencia
March for life and coexistence, Medellín: I co-organized the march for life and coexistence celebrated on 8th of March of 2015 in Medellín, Colombia. This aimed to call the attention about the daily violence in which we are used to living as a society, and also as a way to support the peace negotiations.

Some years ago, while I was doing my bachelor’s in Finance, my girlfriend broke up with me. I fell into a deep sadness, I lost my appetite, my academic interest, and my passion. Soon after, came the economic crisis of 2008 and my lack of interest grew into a strong criticism of the financial sector and I no longer wanted to become a banker or a stockbroker. Suddenly all the formulas and processes to calculate profits, incomes, balance sheets, income statements and so on were meaningless to me.

But life has funny ways of showing new perspectives: mine came from a successful interview for an internship in a strange office located in the basement of a public building. It was a public program run by my city council called “The Opportunities Bank”, a microcredit public strategy that had recently been created in the marginalised areas of Medellin.

Soon after, I was working with small entrepreneurs in places I had never visited before in the city in which I had always lived. The motivation and passion was back.

 

Where Passion Leads You

Since that moment my life changed direction: I became a political activist, getting involved in peace initiatives, grassroots projects, youth collectives, and environmental justice movements. I worked in different development sectors: an early childhood development program, a security and coexistence observatory. During my last job I led the creation and implementation of a participatory education strategy with rural youth.

I volunteered with an NGO in art and coexistence, co-hosted a community radio program, co-organised an artistic performance to raise awareness of forced disappearances, and a march promoting peace and coexistence. I even did urban gardening with a bunch of hip-hop artists and was invited to give a TED talk.

What I learnt throughout these various experiences is that social change is not a profession but a way of living. It cannot be done alone, it needs the participation of the many, to work collectively and collaborate with each other. That, incidentally, is the subject of my TED talk.

facilitando
This is an image of one of the participative education workshops that I led. This was part of a non-formal educational strategy for youth empowerment.

Learning By Doing

Learning by doing (with others) is how I became a development practitioner, in the very challenging context of Colombia. It is hard to explain the deep connection I have with my country. We have many problems such as violence and a long armed conflict, corruption, a culture of illegality with roots in drug trafficking, huge inequalities, to name a few.

Despite these problems, Colombians are a diverse and resilient nation living in one of the most bio-diverse habitats on the planet. With my work, I was able to see the deep rural Colombia that was so disconnected from the realities of my urban upbringing. It was precisely this diversity that inspired me to take the next step: I grew up in a mountainous tropical environment but I always felt as though those mountains also restricted my perspective. I wanted to see the world and understood that I needed to complement my experience with an academic degree.

Obstacles To Studying

It took me three more years of working to make this dream come true. I started studying English, I sought the advice of those I considered my role models. I saved money and searched tirelessly for programs, countries, and cities that I would like to live in. I decided upon what I wanted to study through the Global Association of Masters of Development Practice (MDP) programs and a close friend recommended Monash as one of the options.

Being here at Monash today is the result of long hours of dreaming, planning, searching, and studying. After finally receiving my acceptance letter, the final stages of my project were to apply for a scholarship, quit my job and pack my things.

But macroeconomics played a trick on me: the oil prices went down, the currency exchange rate fell and my hard-earned savings were severely reduced. What happened next is an example of when the power of collective action can come into play.

This was a beautiful moment when many friends gathered together to give me their good wishes and give me a hand to complete my financial resources. Each of the people brought some objects to donate that were sold during the event. The Red Baron airplane was the symbol of the event and the symbol of my journey as well.
This was a beautiful moment when many friends gathered together to give me their good wishes and give me a hand to complete my financial resources. Each of the people brought some objects to donate that were sold during the event. The Red Baron airplane was the symbol of the event and the symbol of my journey as well.

Some of my friends decided to support me and we created a fundraising strategy: we did an eco-touristic trip, an auction and a farewell party. More than one hundred people were involved and I was able to fundraise AUD $6,000. I had money for the first semester, my flight ticket and my bags packed.

I was already on my way to Australia when I learnt that I had not been successful in the scholarship application. The sense of uncertainty I experienced learning this, felt like jumping from a high cliff but nothing would stop me now.

 

Hard Work Pays Off

It has been a year now since I came to Melbourne. Since then I have had the opportunity of seeing my country from a different perspective, to study its development history, to follow how the peace process is coming to an end and the multiple challenges that this will bring for Colombia’s future.

One of the most valuable aspects of the MIDP has been to share a classroom with students from such diverse backgrounds; all of them so passionate and so talented. Understanding the challenges that we all face as human beings and how we all share common problems in such a diverse world is one of the most rewarding things about studying at Monash.

Being in the MIDP program has been a wonderful experience but also just a part of the whole journey. It has been a great challenge to deal with solitude, to find a place to live, make new friends and get a job to support myself. I have worked as a cleaner, as a dishwasher, as a waiter, as a chef. However, I have also had the pleasure of both enjoying and suffering the full four seasons. I have surfed for the first time, I saw snow and snowboarded too. I went to the Formula1 Grand Prix and the Australian Open Grand Slam. I have enjoyed most of all, living in such a diverse and open-minded city as Melbourne.

To summarise, my life turned around again and I feel that I have grown, learnt and have demonstrated to myself that I can achieve many things. One year later I got the scholarship and I am now tutoring at Monash. And I tell you what, I am sure that many more good experiences are yet to come.

El arranque poster

Sebastián Restrepo Henao
MIDP Student