Seattle Ambassador returns home with a new view on her city

JJozlyn Pelk visits the home of Espiritu Santos Alvarez, an artisan beader trained at a vocational center in the remote town of Santa Cruz la Laguna, Guatemala, with funding from Lopez Island-based Amigos de Santa Cruz Foundation. (Photo by Gloria Mayne / The Seattle International Foundation)

For Jozlyn Pelk, the first Seattle Ambassador Program honoree, it took leaving the country for the first time to discover the vast opportunities to make a global impact right here at home.

In 1929 a Hungarian author named Frigyes Karinthy proposed that everyone is connected to any other person in the world by only six steps — the “Six Degrees of Separation.” In theory, this would mean that in a chain of no more than six people, you might know everyone from the Dalai Lama, to the President of Iran, to a rural farmer in Guatemala.

So what does this mean for modern international relations? If, in fact, we are linked to any other person on the planet by only six degrees, how do we make this theory a reality and connect with people in countries half a world away?

Well, we Seattleites are fortunate to live in a city where so many citizens care deeply about what is happening in countries around the world. Seattle based non-profits and educational institutions take advantage of an abundance of globally-minded citizens in our area to make a difference in the international community.

Earlier this year, the Seattle International Foundation and the City of Seattle united to appoint the first ever Seattle Ambassador, Jozlyn Pelk, a senior at UW Bothell. In one whirlwind week in October, Pelk traveled to Guatemala and Nicaragua, meeting local leaders and visiting communities and schools in both countries.

Andrea and Juana, two students at the Casa Blanca school in Guatemala who are receiving scholarship support from Seattle donors. (Photo by Gloria Mayne / The Seattle International Foundation)Andrea and Juana, two students at the Casa Blanca school in Guatemala who are receiving scholarship support from Seattle donors. (Photo by Gloria Mayne / Seattle International Foundation)

“[In Guatemala], I connected most with the mother’s from Casa Blanca school,” Pelk said. “Even though we were complete strangers, after the hour spent together I felt so welcomed and inspired by their stories.”

The Casa Blanca school serves families in the western Guatemalan city of Quetzaltenango who are affected by high rates of poverty and emigration to the U.S. Scholarship funds donated from Seattle and elsewhere help children who would otherwise lack the resources to attend the school.

Overall, Pelk visited the projects of seven nonprofits — from youth programs in Nicaragua to vocational training programs for indigenous women in Guatemala — that are either based in the Seattle area or funded in part by Seattle donors, and witnessed firsthand how Washingtonians are making an impact in Central America.

Based on her experiences an ACT service lead (Achieving Community Transformation) at UW Bothell, Pelk says getting students involved in service engagement is often a challenge.

“The US education system focuses too much on what will enhance our personal chances of success rather than the community’s success,” Pelk said. “In both Guatemala and Nicaragua… the site leaders spoke nothing about personal gain; it was all about giving back to the community.”

Since her return to Seattle, Pelk has been speaking at various events and sharing what she learned with people from all over the greater Seattle area. The goal is to raise awareness and motivate others to take action.

Communication is a key tool in sponsoring strong connections between local citizens and those abroad. The Study Abroad Ambassador program at UW Bothell (UWB) has a similar goal to that of Seattle Ambassador. Now running for its second year on campus, the program is using community outreach to involve more students in study abroad programs.

Jozlyn Pelk visits a preschool classroom at Tuilcabaj primary school in the community of Concepcion, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. (Photo by Gloria Mayne / The Seattle International Foundation)Jozlyn Pelk visits a preschool classroom at Tuilcabaj primary school in the community of Concepcion, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. (Photo by Gloria Mayne / Seattle International Foundation)

Natalia Dyba, the Manager of Global Initiatives and Merit Scholarships at UWB, says study abroad enrollment in UWB programs has increased by 36 percent in the last academic year.

“We have a robust group that is representative of the whole campus,” Dyba said. “They don’t do any official advising, but they do a lot of spreading the word and chatting about their experience with their friends, which goes a long way.”

The Global Initiatives office at UWB has been coordinating with Career Advising to create workshops that teach students how to use their experience abroad to its full potential. These include tips for resume writing, reflection, and community outreach and marketing.

Gloria Mayne of the Seattle International Foundation, who traveled with Pelk to Guatemala and Nicaragua, makes a good point that “being a Seattle Ambassador means more than traveling abroad.” It’s the sharing and reflecting on the experience once you get back home that makes the real difference.

Even with an ever-growing global population, supposedly those six degrees of separation still apply. But with the development of technology in communication and transport, the distances that we have to travel in order to gain an expanded world view are shrinking.

As the official Ambassador, Pelk encourages everyone to consider their global impact: “By committing to being a part of a bigger movement for global change, individually and collectively, we are all Seattle Ambassadors.”