Maria Luisa Olavarria was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. She arrived at the Monterey Institute of International Studies for the BA/MA program having began her bachelors degree at the Universidad Metropolitana in her hometown, having played a leading role in driving political discussions in Caracas. Maria Luisa received her Bachelor of Arts in International Relations in May, and is graduating with a Master of Arts in International Policy Studies in December, with a concentration in Human Security and Development. She has dedicated her studies in understanding armed violence, peacebuilding initiatives, and disarmament and nonproliferation issues. Throughout her time at MIIS, she has been President for the Conflict Resolution Association, attended a J-Term Peacebuilding Course in Nepal, and has successfully completed two internships at the United Nations in New York, including being involved in negotiations of UN disarmament meetings as a political advisor in the Venezuelan Delegation.
I was born in Caracas, Venezuela. Now, Venezuela is a beautiful country in South America with the potential to thrive. In Caracas I lived an amazing life, and I have to thank my family for that. I was protected and loved, and taken care of. My father was a politician, and his involvement in this arena was an intense one to say the least. When I was about 8 or 9 years old, we had to come to the United States as political refugees, because my fathers life and our safety was in danger. We spent two wonderful years in Hanover, NH – and I even at the young aged I realized that what many children had here, I didn’t have back home. The luxury of walking or biking to school was unknown to me.
Two years passed and the day the government changed, we packed our bags and returned to our beloved home. What a shock. Things had gotten worse, but that didn’t mean my father would step back. He continued with his political career with the same energy and passion as ever, until the end of his days. Before my father passed away, he managed to convince me that I was blessed with inspiration, that I was bound for a better future.
The day came when my political rights and freedoms were in danger. I was in college at that point, starting my bachelor in Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas. I started to become involved in what is called the Venezuelan Student Movement; an effort made by students who wanted to express their feelings and opinions against the actions of an oppressive government. We educated, marched and protested; we breathed in tear gas, got beat up by the police – but we had managed to open a space to be heard. People were listening to us express our anger, but also express our hopes for the future.
After three years of involvement I must acknowledge, I got tired. I felt I had the drive in me… but the hundreds of thousands of deaths created by the armed violence in Caracas was daunting. Violence became an element of the economy in my country, an element of power. I wanted to continue my fight, but I was afraid I would become just one more number in the death toll, one more case that would go unsolved. Packing my bags and leaving my country was one of the hardest things I’ve done. Seeing my mom and friends wave goodbye in the airport made me feel as if though I was the one giving up; I was the one abandoning. Now I look back and realize that I not only lived Caracas – I survived it.
That – is why I came to MIIS. Yes, I came because I was afraid, but I saw a better future here. Simon Bolivar once said: “We must innovate or fail”. This means that we need to develop solutions that meet new needs, sometimes inarticulate needs or silenced needs. In my country those needs are silenced with bullets.
What I found in MIIS was so much more than I expected. First and foremost: DIVERSITY! What a pleasure to share a classroom with people from around the world, with different experiences. Surrounding yourself with people that think differently makes you respect differences, and embrace them… And the last two years have taught me not merely the importance of appreciating other cultures, but also the need to realize the inevitable reality of unequal living standards amongst different countries. I quickly saw that what had been obvious in my life in Caracas was far from the realities in Kathmandu or Bujumbura. Makes you put yourself in their shoes and look at things from a different perspective.
-INCLUSION OF LEGACY OF DR. GROTHE-
Enough about me now; because you know that diversity I was talking about that I found? Well some of the best individuals I met are sitting right in front of me, and they deserve the spotlight too.
Amongst you is a survivor of the Croatian war. She witnessed atrocities and evils most of us only see on movie screens. Having survived, she was aware of what she had experienced yet never understood how people can be driven to perpetrate such horrible things. She came to MIIS to understand the roots of her past; to better understand conflict and the dynamics of war. At MIIS, not only was she able to answer these pressing questions, but also found what she calls, a ‘Plan B’: the option of working for the United States government as a Foreign Service Officer. How marvelous it is to know that somebody who has given up so much now finds absolute pleasure in serving others.
Another graduate sitting amongst you decided to join the Peace Corps after college. He was motivated by a desire to be a part of something bigger than himself. He was assigned a rural health assignment in a village of just 300 in the mountains of El Salvador, at a time when the country’s murder rate had reached the highest it’s ever been since their civil war of the 80’s. During those two years he saw how poverty and violence sequestered an entire country in fear and uncertainty. He met teenage boys killed by gang violence, young girls who were kept from earning and education; Knowing that he would leave it all behind at the end of his service bothered him, and became overwhelmed with the moral obligation to make his life’s work about others. That obligation brought him to MIIS.
It makes you think… if these minds were able to achieve so much on their own, imagine what we could achieve collectively.
We’ll be graduating in December and each of us will take our own path. What I can tell you now, is that these past five semesters at MIIS have been a true honor. It has been an honor to share a classroom or a coffee with you, it has been an honor to see you achieve your goals and dreams. Most importantly, it will be an honor when I open the newspaper fifteen years from now and see your ideas, your innovations, change the world.