Stories from our international boarding schools

Advice from alumni: Elisa Chavez

Elisa Chavez, from Norway and Mexico, graduated from EF Academy New York as class of 2009. She is currently studying her Master’s Degree in International Cooperation at Yonsei University in Korea. Learn more about our featured alum:

How did you hear about EF Academy and why did you choose to attend?

I grew up in a multi-national family in Norway – my dad is Mexican and my mom is Norwegian. I think this environment made me curious about the world and its different cultures from an early stage. So when I got to high school and going on exchange was on the table, I already knew I wanted to do it. The spring I graduated from middle school, I got in touch with the EF office in Oslo, took some placement tests and was interviewed. Then one day in June, my Admissions Director at that time, Trine-Lise, called me up and told me that EF Academy was opening up a new campus in New York. Since she knew I wanted to study abroad and be challenged academically, she recommended that I go, which I did. This was in 2008 and it was my first time away from Norway and my parents.

I loved the year that I spent with EF Academy in New York. I understand that the school today is very different from when I was there. We were only 120 students at the Tarrytown campus and only pre-IB was offered at that time. But it was an amazing experience to live with my peers and have so many languages and different people around me. Between us students, we often shared anecdotes from our home countries, which increased my appetite for learning about the different corners of the world. I even started picking up German during my year with EF Academy because I was spending time with a lot of German students.

What university did you go to afterwards? What did you study and why?

Growing up, I never liked history or politics. But I guess it is true what they say about a teacher’s ability to make all the difference in the world. My fantastic history teacher at EF Academy – Michelle Douglas – allowed me to discover my passion for history and international affairs. From that moment on, I just knew that I wanted to pursue my studies within these fields.

Once I was back in Norway, I realized that I wanted to go back to the U.S. and continue to explore. The U.S. was a very fascinating place for me because it is so diverse, all in one place. Thus, I applied and got into California Lutheran University with a good scholarship to help me earn my Bachelor’s Degree in Global Studies, minoring in Political Science and Spanish. Honestly, my university experience was much easier thanks to my experiences at EF Academy and the IB program. For example, we would be asked to write a research paper and I felt that everyone else was freaking out except for me because I had already learned how to do this when I worked on my Extended Essay and Internal Assessments. Also, I was able to transfer more credits from my high school degree toward my university courses, which allowed me to study abroad in Colombia in South America.

After graduating in May 2014, I went back to Norway and worked for six months at a non-profit organization (NGO) that is involved with Human Rights. It was a fantastic experience to be hands on in seeing different governments come together and work towards a common cause. In January 2015, I went to Tanzania to volunteer as an English and History teacher at a primary school. I think it is vital to have been exposed to as many cultures and societies as possible when pursuing a career in international affairs, because it will allow you to understand where people you interact with are coming from. Which in turn will allow you to understand them. I strongly believe that education is the most important key to success, and exposure to different cultures and norms in our globalized world is becoming an increasingly important part of that education. After Tanzania, I went to do an internship at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York City. It was a great feeling being back in NYC. That city will always be special to me thanks to EF Academy. The UN experience seemed so surreal as I was suddenly a fly on the wall in a high-level world of  politics, after months of living in rural East Africa. To be honest, I got a bit turned off by the diplomatic processes and how long it takes to get anything done. But I guess it was an important reality-check on diplomatic work. At the same time, I must admit I am an impatient person by nature, and I think at this stage in my life, with so much energy and lots to give, it might be more rewarding for me to work with something that allows me to be hands on and see the progress in motion. However, I learned a lot and it was an extremely valuable experience – being able to hear live speeches from big shots like Bill Clinton and the Secretary General of the UN. It was very inspiring.

After the UN, I decided to start my Master’s Degree in International Cooperation at Yonsei University in Korea because I was starting to get hungry for exposure to the Asian continent. My professors are Korean, but have very diverse backgrounds. This experience is both very different and very cool – one can really feel how Asia today is a political center in international affairs.

What did you do after your university studies?

I hope to work in an international organization, even a UN-related one as long as I can be more hands on than in the headquarters. My areas of preference as of now are Human Rights, Children and Women, and Refugees. I feel there are too few people working on these issues, and as a result, we see today what unfortunate challenges it has.

Tips to current students that want to study what you studied?

I would like to quote the opening words of the former principal of EF Academy, Gary Julian, when he spoke to us on our very first day, “People will say a lot of things when they hear that you are 15-16 years old and moving across the world on your own. But I have one thing that I want to add on top of the list: you are risk-takers.” Although I have later lived in Tanzania and Colombia, the biggest risk that I have taken up to this day was moving away from my family in Norway for the first time, to go to school in EF Academy in New York. I was only 15 years old and I went abroad on my own without being comfortable in the language and not knowing the culture. I had never been to New York before. Luckily, all my peers were at that same level and through that experience, we all learned the value of friendship across language and culture.

Being in the field of international affairs, it is important to be able to speak to people from their points of view. To be able to do so, it is essential to aspire to see the world and learn languages. The more exposure to different cultures you have, the better equipped you will be. That is why it is vital to be a risk-taker. EF Academy helped planting that seed of being a risk-taker within me, and now that I continue to travel, I realize how lucky I am. We need more risk-takers to have that same realization! I quote the Dalai Lama when I say, “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kind.”

Do you keep in touch with your EF Academy classmates?

I do! Everywhere I go I try to meet up with former classmates. When living in Colombia, I spent a lot of time with them, and due to proximity, it also allowed me to go to Chile and have another EF Academy reunion. Even now, when I am in Korea, I try to meet up with my Korean friends from EF. We have also had reunions in Europe between Colombians, Chileans, Mexicans, Koreans, Germans, Dutch, Turkish and Norwegians. It is very cool to see who people have grown up to become because we were only kids when we first met. But we will always have that special bond – it feels like an extended family.

What is your favorite memory from EF Academy?

There are so many. Mostly they are memories of our normal life like being in the library studying, hanging out in the common area or in the cafeteria. We would get into discussions about our lives at home and teach each other ways of doing things from our home countries. I loved to hear those stories.

We became each others’ families. It was our friends and teachers who were there when we were going through ups and downs of life. Sharing happy moments like birthdays, or just needing a shoulder to cry on. I remember one time I had to go to the hospital, the concerned office secretary drove me in her own car and one friend from school came with me to the hospital and stayed with me. I had to be there for 13-14 hours and there were at least 5-6 people that came by to visit me in the hospital bed; some of my classmates did not know how to get there so they would pay for taxis. Which was something we never did. Even some of my favorite teachers came – my English teacher sat next to my hospital bed to keep me company for hours. This just shows how students and teachers really acted as one family.

What do you miss the most?

The people and the memories that we shared that year. The hardest part is the thought of there never being a place or a time again when we all will be together. But I guess that also makes the memories even more precious.

What is one thing that you learned from EF Academy that you found valuable for university? For work life? For your personal life?

My year at EF Academy really gave me perspective on what is important in life. Having grown up in a rather wealthy neighborhood in Oslo, despite my multicultural family, I was getting used to the homogeneous environment with skewed views on values in life. But after my year abroad, I realized the extreme value in genuine friendships and meeting people who teach you about ingenuity, loyalty and placing your happiness on something else than materials. Going back to Norway after EF Academy in New York, I could really feel that I had changed my priorities. I was suddenly saving my money to go travel and see my friends instead of going shopping or buying other material things. From this change of attitude I also discovered the value of spending my money on combining travel with volunteer work. Since I was in high school, it had been something I had dreamed of doing.

What final tip would you give to current students?

Be a risk-taker and get out of your comfort zone. It is important to take risks because that is the only way you will grow.

Short questions:

Name: Elisa Chavez

Age: 23

Nationality: Norway and Mexico

How many languages do you speak? Spanish, Norwegian, English fluently. But from studies and travel, I can also communicate to different extents in French, German, Swahili and Korean.

EF Academy campus: New York – Tarrytown

Graduation year: 2009

Program: IB (History, English, Norwegian, Math, Biology, Social Anthropology)

Residence or host family: Residence

Favorite subject: History

Favorite teacher:

  • Michelle Douglas – my History teacher who allowed me to fall in love with the subject
  • Peter Richter – my English teacher who became a friend. He always made our days better with jokes or donuts. Sometimes both!

Favorite club / society: Since we were the first class in NYC, we did not have any clubs or societies. However, I enjoyed going to the gym and running in beautiful Tarrytown.

Who to interview next:

Sina Spiegler, this German girl is studying law in Germany – top student – exchange program in Oxford.

Sigvor Kristine Rullestad, this Norwegian girl is living by example on how to bridge gaps in multicultural societies and be exactly the kind of person that the Dalai Lama (and I) wish to see more of in the world.

Shouts outs to:

  • Gary Julian and Peter Richter – thank you for being my mentors at EF Academy
  • Most of all to my whole graduating class – thank you for being my family


Share this article

Latest articles from Alumni