Alumni Profile

Alumni Profile: Adrian Benjamin

A young man in a navy blue polo shirt leans against a tree

Welcome to HECUA’s Alumni Profile series. Each month we’ll catch up with a HECUA alumni, and see how their time in a HECUA classroom influenced their career goals, their life in the community, and their pursuit of continued education. If you or a friend would like to participate in this series, please email lohmans@hecua.org. This month we’re delighted to feature Adrian Benjamin, currently the Legislative Aide for State Representative Carlos Mariani. Adrian is a graduate of St. Olaf College, and completed HECUA’s J-Term Ecuador program in January of 2016.

Adrian Benjamin was a senior majoring in Political Science when he boarded a plane bound for Quito and HECUA’s J-Term Ecuador program. One year prior, he’d been a Math major with a passion for Latin American politics and a growing discomfort with his chosen field of study. When he selected Math and Management Studies, he remembers, “My parents were so happy! They said, ‘you’re going to make lots of money, you’re going to be able to pay off your debts.’” The further Adrian progressed in his coursework, however, the more he realized that being good at something and enjoying it are two different things. “I realized that I couldn’t spend an entire day sitting at a desk, crunching numbers in front of a computer screen.”

This realization solidified into conviction, and Adrian met with his advisor to work out an alternate graduation plan his junior year. If he was going to switch majors and graduate on time, he needed to hit the ground running. Together, they combed through past coursework to see if an alternate pattern would emerge. Sure enough, they found a trail of political science and high-level Spanish courses winding through math and management. “I thought, wow! Why don’t I do something I’m really interested in? I did debate and speech all through high school. I’ve been taking political science all through college.” Adrian switched his major that semester.

There was just one missing piece. “So, it’s nearly the end of junior year. I don’t have time to do a semester long program, I needed to complete my political science requirements, but I really wanted to study abroad,” Adrian says. That’s where HECUA came in. HECUA’s J-Term Ecuador program was the perfect length, and it matched Adrian’s interest in social and political transformations in Latin American countries.

HECUA student glides down a zipline with one fist outstretched, in front of a rocky cliff face.

This is not how Adrian traveled to Ecuador, but it is one of the ways he traveled after he arrived.

After his first semester of senior year, Adrian left for Ecuador’s capital city of Quito, where HECUA’s J-Term program is based. HECUA students live in homestays in Quito when they are not on the road for field visits. Students analyze and discuss social and political movements in different regions of the country, and then travel to those areas to speak with the actors. Readings on environmentalism are supplemented by a trip to the Amazon, for example. “We’d have speakers come in who were masters of their own craft,” Adrian says, reflecting on the teaching model. “I loved going to places and seeing firsthand what’s happening, why it happened.”

A group of young people in safety orange life jackets sit together on a gray canoe.

HECUA students on a field visit to the Amazon river basin. 

This type of learning is immersive, and it can reveal complexities that might be concealed in a reading or a carefully prepared speech. Adrian remembers this dynamic at play during a class visit to the coastal town of Salinas, a popular tourist destination. In the past the city had been the center of a salt-producing industry that relied on slave labor. A small museum coordinated tours of the former salt production facilities in English and Spanish. During the students’ English language tour, Adrian noted the tour guide’s reluctance to use the word ‘slave.’ “The way our tour guide described the salt-making process,” he said, “I just knew it was a watered-down version. She would say, ‘the person,’ instead, as in – the person would come over here, and push this machine.”

At the end of the tour, the group left the museum and walked through the town towards the mountains. Adrian was perturbed to see group members, exclaiming over how beautiful the scenery was, pull out their cellphones to take selfies. “I was really upset,” he says. “I said to them – this is not beautiful! This is a record of slavery. I’m really disappointed in this group for not realizing that. [Field visit coordinator] Adriana thanked me for saying it, but I felt conflicted. There were a lot of little moments like that on the trip.”

As those moments multiplied, sometimes the pull Adrian felt to be an educator as well as a student felt overwhelming. Questions of authenticity, narrative, and activism permeated the program, as students unpacked social movements. They explored how inconvenient stories can be hidden and useful narratives co-opted by those in control. In the end, Adrian says, “That experience set me up to understand different experiences of power. [Within our class] there was a diversity of experience and perspective. You were able to learn about why people think the way they do.” Those interactions, although they were draining at times, helped Adrian solidify his understanding of the power of narrative, and who holds it.

a group of students sit around a large oak dining room table

Adrian with his classmates.

In fact, he says, “Ever since I came back from Ecuador I’ve had a more social justice focus. I felt empowered.” When he arrived back on campus to complete his senior year, Adrian was ready to cruise through the last few months of his college career. “I just wanted to have a good year, have it be fun and meaningful.”

Shortly after he returned, however, a fellow St. Olaf student asked if he’d be willing to help organize the campus to reframe policy around sexual assault. Adrian, a survivor himself, said: Of course. What can I do? Quite a bit, as it turned out. The campaign that Adrian and Madeleine Wilson organized resulted in major policy change on campus, and the creation of a working group to make further recommendations. You can read more about their campaign here.

That campaign sparked something important for Adrian. He thought, “I know that I’m smart. I know that I can use that, and create policy change that helps marginalized groups. Let me bring that energy to the capitol. My time in Ecuador [studying social movements] really helped me see that, because people have power there. They feel, individually, that they have the power to effect change.”

The same semester, Adrian secured an internship with Minnesota Capital Pathways, a program of the Citizens League that supports internships designed to propel young people of color into careers in legislative decision-making. Adrian was placed within the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “In my application essay, I said I was really intrigued by the intersection of environmentalism and racial equity because of my time in Ecuador. That’s why I was paired up with the DNR during my internship,” he explains.

Adrian’s Capitol Pathways experience inspired him to apply to be a legislative assistant in the Minnesota House of Representatives. He was hired and matched with Carlos Mariani, Representative for St. Paul’s District 65B.

When we met with Adrian at the HECUA offices he had just finished a whirlwind session at the state capitol. He described sleeping on couches in Representative Mariani’s office, countless coffee runs, and too many meals comprised exclusively of junk food from the cafeteria. Despite the tough session, his enthusiasm and energy as he recalled working in the House was infectious.

When we asked Adrian about future plans, he said he hoped to continue in politics, maybe one day working for the governor, or even in the White House. It’s clear from his proactive approach to education and post-grad plans that the sky is the limit.

Best of luck, Adrian. Remember HECUA when you’re at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

To learn more about HECUA’s J-Term Ecuador program, click here.

 

 

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