Episode 95 │ Second Best Souvenirs (ITALY/GUATEMALA/COSTA RICA)
Updated: May 10
"I didn't realize I even had those elements until I went. And I always tell folks, like, you learn a lot of really good life skills while you're abroad. Problem-solving, critical thinking. I'm in a foreign territory that I don't know, I barely speak the language... they're teachable moments. You learn so much."(Natasha, Episode 95)
I got to meet this week's guest thanks to a referral! A woman named Shamiko Reid is in the same podcasting group as me, and last month she replied to a post I made in that group back when I was looking for new guests in autumn 2021. Shamiko said she knew someone who would be great for Young, Gifted and Abroad, I told her to send them my way, and that's how Natasha Rodriguez wound up emailing me that same day. Natasha is an educator with many hats who's based in her hometown of Washington, D.C. (Shout-out to fellow recent guests/D.C. area natives Jessica from episode 82, Farrah from episode 86, Genie from episode 87, and Adrienne from episode 93.) She studied in Italy, Guatemala, and Costa Rica as an undergraduate student, fully funded by scholarships, while also having a child at home! Which is a feat that's simply beyond me, so of course I wanted to know how she managed it all. Also, in a time when DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives are trendy and the sincerity of organizations and "experts" who claim to prioritize DEI is sometimes questionable, I was curious about Natasha's approach as an actual expert who facilitates DEI trainings through both her 9 to 5 in higher ed and her own business called Journey Mom.
Born and raised in D.C. as a daughter of immigrants, in hindsight Natasha recalls being predisposed to doing diversity-centered work because of her upbringing and life experiences, "I feel like, naturally, I was being shaped to embrace differences. 'Cause I always felt different in my community as well." She grew up in a multicultural, Spanglish-speaking household that included her Panamanian grandparents and her first generation Panamanian American mom and aunt, and she attended predominantly Black schools where she spoke only English. Natasha hadn't initially planned to go to college, but when she did end up at the University of Maryland College Park, she lived with foreign exchange and international students there. Adding studying abroad to all of that made for a natural progression toward what her professional life looks like now.
Graced with a multiplicity of interests, Natasha explored multiple majors before selecting the best fit for her. She looked into international business, dance, English, and journalism and then found her niche (or so she thought) in Romance languages. Having already gained a conversational foundation in Spanish thanks to being a heritage speaker, she wanted to learn the structure of the language while also studying French and Italian at the same time. Majoring in Romance languages at UMD would have required her to study abroad for a year, but Natasha had become a mom by that point so spending a year away was not ideal. She ultimately found her true niche in social and cultural history (with a concentration in Latin American and Caribbean studies), so that one-year requirement didn't stand, but it did prompt her to embark on her first study abroad experience before switching to a history degree.
Italy had always appealed to Natasha as a seemingly romantic place with delicious cuisine, so Natasha spent a winter term studying Italian language and culture in Genoa (or Genova). Her family took care of her six-month-old son while she was gone for those three to four weeks—as they did with her other two study abroad experiences as well—and despite discovering that she had flight anxiety (still does) and having the respite from her baby's crying give way to a temporary but intense bout of homesickness, overall she was glad that she pushed herself to go. She would use weekends to visit Milan and other towns, and her favorite excursion was hiking through Cinque Terre. Even now, she still gets nostalgic every time she smells clementines and focaccia (the daily breakfast on her way to class), and she misses the animated way that Italians would communicate. Natasha had been to Panama in elementary school to visit her relatives there, so Italy was not her first international travel experience, but as an almost-adult it still left an indelible impact on her. She felt enlightened, like she was evolving ("I loved who I could be while I was away"), and she'd thoroughly caught the travel bug. Hence, her next trip: an alternative break in Guatemala.
Natasha was drawn to the Guatemala program because it was focused on sustainable development, a concept she was fascinated by because she knew nothing about it at the time. And since alternative breaks are community service-focused, she and her fellow student volunteers spent 10-14 days renovating a school at Los Andes Nature Reserve, a rural community near the base of a dormant volcano. The labor-intensive work was more strenuous than Natasha had anticipated, and unlike the hotel-style amenities she had in Italy, her group had to adjust to inconveniences like cold showers and unreliable electricity and phone reception (which sometimes made it difficult to stay in touch with her family back home). But ever the humble and curious traveler, Natasha embraced those challenges as opportunities to adapt. Furthermore, connecting with the local people often made those challenges feel worth it. The schoolchildren loved playing with her and the other volunteers, and Natasha got along swimmingly with the kitchen staff of the enormous house that her group stayed in. Given her own Latin American roots, she found herself speaking Spanish with the staff, recognizing similarities between Guatemalan and Panamanian foods, and her room being directly next to the kitchen meant she could enjoy the smells of the staff's cooking along with the sounds of their chatter and laughter.
"My stories were the second best souvenirs I could give anyone."
In Natasha's final year of college, she chose Costa Rica as her third and last study abroad experience. Rather than UMD, this program was facilitated by the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC), and entailed a winter term in the beach town of Puntarenas. Natasha studied history, Spanish, and salsa dancing during those few weeks, and she lived with a host mom and host sister along with a fellow American student. Since Costa Rica is even closer to Panama geographically than Guatemala, Natasha took delight in recognizing all the cultural commonalities, and being of age to enjoy the local nightlife with her friends made her feel truly grown. From Italy to Guatemala to Costa Rica, she came away from each trip having made an abundance of lasting friends and memories, and sharing her stories with her loved ones after returning home eventually became the impetus for the travel blogging part of Journey Mom. As she told me, "Outside of me coming back safe, my stories were the second best souvenirs I could give anyone."
There are two things Natasha now knows to be true which she hadn't considered when she was in undergrad. The first of those realizations is that being a child of immigrants definitely made her approach studying abroad differently than her peers. Growing up in a low-income immigrant family taught her how to survive in unfamiliar situations, and she maintains that there weren't enough minority students present in her programs. She and her group in Guatemala did a "privilege walk" activity to help students examine their own privileges, and at first Natasha cried and felt ashamed about being one of two students still at the back of the line at the end of that activity (because they hadn't had the same privileges as others). However, that shame transformed into gratitude for arriving at the same space as students who'd had more advantages than her, along with a profound understanding of how unique her experience is as a traveler.
The second major realization that has become clear to Natasha in hindsight is that her travels have helped her set an example for her son. She knew after her Costa Rica trip that she wanted to keep traveling internationally; she felt like she'd gotten the rhythm of traveling down, and being a sociable extrovert would help her connect with new people while traveling solo. Thankfully, she's been able to travel to numerous countries for work and for leisure since graduating from college. When I asked about her most memorable journeys, she mentioned Japan as being her starkest experience of cultural shock on multiple levels, but she would still love to go back. As someone who's been able to find a sense of home in countries that have large African diasporas, visiting the Togo, Benin, and Ghana was a "spiritual awakening" journey that she was fortunate to take in early 2020 before the world shut down. And in 2016 or 2017, her visit to Colombia got extended when natural disasters in surrounding countries delayed her return home.
All of these experiences and more have given Natasha ample personal stories that she uses both when teaching DEI and when explaining to her son what international travel is all about. Natasha waited to take him on trips until he was old enough to appreciate and remember them, and has intentionally enrolled him in diverse schools so that he can become culturally competent. He took extremely well to a trip they took to Puerto Rico in 2021 to test the waters, and he's now excitedly obsessed with going to Japan one day. Natasha wants to take her son wherever she has the means to take him, and if it's not within her means, she wants him to understand the prioritization and sacrifice it takes to afford travel when it's time for him to venture out on his own.
Today, in addition to her responsibilities as a mom, her role as adjunct faculty in higher education, and "bridging the gap through advocacy, education & travel" via Journey Mom (according to Journey Mom's Instagram bio), Natasha likes to keep plenty busy. Her other endeavors include mentoring and volunteering when she can, as well as crafting cocktails and designing and selling apparel. The amount of places she has no interest in seeing in the near future—Antarctica is too cold, Australia is too far—pales in comparison to all the places she does want to see. Her extensive list includes East Africa, Machu Picchu in Peru (so she can encounter more wonders of the world besides Chichen Itza in Mexico), various Greek islands, and the Canary Islands. Meanwhile, Natasha can be found on her website (journeymom.com), Instagram (@journey.mom and @culture_enthusiast), and Facebook (Journey Mom LLC).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Second Best Souvenirs (ITALY/GUATEMALA/COSTA RICA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
"Welcome to Journey Mom" (Natasha's intro video)
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.