Alumni Spotlight: Princeton in Latin America (PiLA) Senior Fellow Shares Experiences

Keara Cormier-Hill graduated from YES Prep Southeast in 2008 and majored in sociology at Harvard. After graduating from Harvard in 2012, she worked with the national non-profit KaBOOM and with the DC Social Innovation Project. She is now a Princeton in Latin America Senior Fellow, working in the Dominican Republic with the Mariposa DR Foundation. We interviewed Keara about her work abroad and what lessons she’s carried with her from YES Prep.

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Why did you apply for the Princeton in Latin America (PiLA) fellowship?

When I was working at KaBOOM, I worked in partnership with a lot of different organizations that served under-resourced kids. I loved the work but I felt a bit separate from it. I really wanted to work on the ground and provide more direct services. I also wanted to build my Spanish fluency. Additionally, I wanted to work in another country to gain a new perspective. I wanted to find out what things I enjoy doing– no matter what country I’m in. So I explored international opportunities and found PiLA.

Why did you select the Dominican Republic?

I studied abroad in Cuba in college and loved my experience of being on a Caribbean island. I also wanted to see the mix of Afro and Latino cultures. YES Prep, when I was there, was majority Latino. I was very aware of that fact in Houston, and I wanted to see what it was like to be in a culture that has elements of Latino and African cultures.

What does your work as a fellow entail?

Last year, I worked with the organization, Yspaniola. I was teaching and leading service learning trips and educational workshops on what it means to live in a batey— a marginalized community of mostly Haitian migrants. I taught pre-k through the equivalent of 3rd graders in the learning center there, working with students who were behind in Spanish literacy because their first language was Haitian Creole. I worked with them on phonics and reading activities. For the service learning trips, I worked mostly with university and high school students that were visiting the Dominican Republic.

Now, I’m with the Mariposa DR Foundation and will continue to work with them until my fellowship ends in August 2017. Here, I’m teaching English and doing youth development workshops on identity and intercultural exchanges. Mariposa works with about 150 girls from ages 7-19 who live in low-income neighborhoods. They can see psychologists here, they have art workshops, financial literacy workshops, etc. to develop the motivation to close the generational gap of poverty. They also have a scholarship fund, so that girls can go to the private school here.

As a Senior Fellow, you mentor first year fellows. Can you tell us what that entails?

We start mentoring as early as the interview process, talking with applicants about what you need to do to craft a strong application for the PiLA program. Once the applicants are selected and are deciding between the different countries and organizations, I talk to them about my experience in the Domincan Republic and the organizations I’ve worked with. I talk to them about living here on a stipend and how to find other financial resources and grants. I also talk to them about how the work connects with what I want to do in the future and what I’ve learned that might apply across different partner organizations or countries.

What is the living situation like for PiLA fellows?

It depends on the organization you work with. No matter what, housing is provided, but what it looks like might depend. For both organizations I’ve worked with, I’ve been provided shared housing with other staff at my non-profit. They also provide food and living expenses, which really does cover the basics of what you need. But Visa fees, air fare, travel outside of the job, and medical expenses (which need to be paid up front, but will be reimbursed) have to be paid out-of-pocket. My first year, I relied on savings from my DC job for those extra expenses. For this year, I applied for and received two grants to cover all those different expenses and to cover two additional projects that I work on outside of Mariposa.

How has this experience impacted how you’re thinking about your future?

I want to return to the US and definitely want to work within the education field but from more of a social work and social development background. What do kids need outside of books to be well-supported educationally? For example, food and nutrition programs or programs that develop the family or different support structures for students with special needs. I’m trying to determine what [my next steps] will look like. I will probably pursue a degree in higher education, social work, or counseling.

What is one lesson from YES Prep that helped you in college and that you carry with you today?

For me, I think the lesson is to do things of high-value and to be a contributing member of your community. My desire to be a great citizen of the world came from YES. When I was in high school at YES, I had a group of teachers that were very focused on international service. I traveled abroad for the first time, once to Ghana and another time to Ecuador. There’s something very beautiful about learning things that are important no matter where you are. People are caring for children across the globe and I can be a part of that. YES teachers taught me that.

Leaders and teachers at YES Prep were always giving a lot of themselves to their work. I carry that with me too. The teachers always believed that your situation doesn’t limit you. In my experience in the Dominican Republic, I’ve found that people say things like, “Oh because they came from this background, they won’t go far. You have to make it easier for them.” That’s not the thinking at YES. I hold myself to a high standard, and I want to encourage the people I work with to hold themselves and the kids to high standards as well.

Do you have any closing advice for current students?

I would tell students to appreciate the YES community. There’s so much focus on creating family and community with the people you’re in school with. If you take the time to appreciate it, you’ll be able to come back to that. I still keep in touch with YES teachers and friends.

For more on the PiLA Senior Fellows, check out: https://pila-princeton.org/fellows/senior-fellows

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