Connecting across three continents, juniorimagines future in diplomacy

When the wheels of Ximena Tovar’s airplane touched down this February in Shanghai’s Pudong Airport, the international affairs student took a look around at the signs written in Chinese and suddenly didn’t feel so confident.

“When I first arrived at the airport, I had no idea what was happening. I didn’t understand the language very well—it was a little overwhelming,” says Tovar, ’10.

Her feeling of disequilibrium vanished once the multilingual native of Peru began intensive courses in Mandarin and Chinese, on top of three business classes, at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. She attends classes offered through the Alliance for Global Education program, which Tovar found through her Northeastern international co-op coordinator.

Before she knew it, Tovar was adapting to her new life. Settling into campus housing about 30 minutes from downtown Shanghai, her home base overlooks a backstreet chockablock with shops and street vendors “selling everything,” and nearby restaurants, she said.

Every morning, she exchanges a hello with the keymaker who replaced her apartment key, and she confidently converses with fruit and vegetable vendors on her way to school.

“Everybody has been so welcoming,” she says. “People are interested in learning about me, and want to know why I wanted to study in China.”

It’s an easy question for Tovar:

“China has one of the most important economies in the world. By being here, and studying everything from language to business and marketing, I get a new perspective—from the point of view of the Chinese,” Tovar said. “I now see the global economy from a different vantage point.”

Tovar began to seize the numerous international opportunities available to Northeastern students in 88 cities around the globe when she went to work last September in a co-op job in Costa Rica, for Aliarse, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting public-private partnerships for sustainable development in Costa Rica.

She used her fluency in Spanish to conduct research into manufacturing practices and their environmental impacts in Costa Rica, using as her inspirationearly success her organization had in forgingbeneficial relationship between a U.S. tire manufacturer and the country.

Her American “personality,” which showed itself in the dogged way she pursued her interview appointments, delighted her colleagues, she said. “I told them I felt like I was being a pest when I called secretaries so often that they knew my name by my voice,” she said. “The culture in Costa Rica is so different than it is in America. But they loved my persistence.”

With the same determination, she is learning Chinese, adding to her arsenal of languages, (she speaks Spanish, English, andalso has some understanding of French, Italian and Portuguese) and dreaming of where her international education might one day carry her.

“I’ve always wanted to work in the area of diplomacy,” she said. “That’s always at the back of my mind, an idea that I could work for the United Nations someday.”