From Penn to Google by way of Madrid: a conversation with Fulbright ETA Mabel Oviedo (COL ’16)

After graduating from Penn in 2016, New Jersey native Mabel Oviedo delayed her job search by a year to teach English in Madrid as a Fulbright ETA (over her immigrant parents’ objections). Mabel returned to the US with a clearer sense of self and how to achieve her personal and professional goals, using her new insights to launch a more targeted job hunt. Four months after returning to the US, she took up a position at Google in their Legal Investigations Support team.  

CURF Fellow Kathryn Morgan caught up with Mabel at work in February in Austin, TX—over Google Hangouts, of course! Her responses here are paraphrased from that conversation.

Tell me a little about your background. What made you decide to apply for a Fulbright?

My family is from the Dominican Republic, but I was born and raised in New Jersey. I was an English major at Penn. I always thought I’d go straight to law school, but after studying abroad in Hong Kong I realized I wanted to go abroad again, and all the lawyers I talked to said that if there was something I wanted to do, I should do it before law school.  This time around I wanted to work abroad and live abroad for a longer period of time. Fulbright seemed like the perfect opportunity.

What made the Fulbright program in Spain a good fit?

I realized in Hong Kong how much I missed speaking Spanish, and I felt that  after spending 3-4 years studying English at Penn, I was losing that ability. I considered Latin American countries as well as Spain, but what drew me to Spain was the Madrid program’s Global Classrooms project, which prepares students to participate in Model UN proceedings. They also encourage you to develop what they call side projects, a project that allows you to engage with the local community. As someone with limited teaching experience, I wanted to focus more on project management, and pull in some of the skills I had developed at Penn, working with the administration--I had organized a mental health conference as a student. So Spain and Madrid in particular felt like a perfect fit for me.

Was it tough to make the transition to teaching? What are some of the transferable skills you feel you learned as a Fulbright ETA?

The orientation week was really well-developed, so I was given a lot of teaching plans to tweak, and people were really generous about sharing their resources. I relied heavily on people with more teaching experience. Most importantly, I entered my Fulbright grant with a growth mindset--"I'm a sponge"--I really wanted to learn.

In terms of transferable skills: as an English major, I was used to looking at dense texts and being able to parse them. Learning how to take it to the next step and simplify it into three hours of class was tough. But when I started interviewing for roles in tech, I realized I had gotten a lot better at communicating my ideas effectively and succinctly. It’s important to learn how to present your ideas or experiences without going on forever.

I also learned a lot about how to work with other people. I was one of three Americans in the entire school. Many of my colleagues couldn’t speak English. The experience taught me how to make friends with people of a different culture or background; there are a lot of variables you have to account for. In the end, the experience is what you make of it. Coming in without too many preconceived notions about teaching or Spain made it easier for me to adapt.

Now that you’re a year out, how do you think Fulbright influenced your plans or changed your mind about your future?

It helped in so many ways! The personal growth that you experience is irreplaceable. I had a lot of time to think, write, read. I was shocked that the Fulbright Commission didn’t expect me to have every part of my day filled with activities or work! It gave me the opportunity to think about what I wanted to do next. For instance, I realized I wanted to be somewhere I could grow. I could have stayed on to keep teaching, but I didn’t like the feeling of there being a ceiling to that progress; I was ready to move on, but it was extremely important to me to move to a place that valued growth.

I also wanted to be somewhere with a strong culture of mentorship. My bilingual coordinator or boss at my school was invested in the teachers and students  personally and professionally,--he really listened to what we had to say. For example, he remembered I played tennis, so he gave me a racket to play padel* and take classes to help me meet locals in Madrid. Later, I’d come with questions about why things were a certain way or how to get things done, and he would help me navigate that system.

That experience taught me to be proactive about seeking help and advocating for what I need or want. Now at work, I’m not shy about reaching out to other managers on the team, and I’ve enrolled in a company-wide mentorship program.

Living in Spain also gave me the opportunity to observe my country from the outside. My students were very curious about my lived experience, and it was important to me that they understand how diverse America really is. I worked in a lower-income area of Madrid, but I was impressed by how much students still had access to—most of the students had travelled abroad, partially funded by their school; there was healthy yet affordable food in the supermarkets, etc.. It made me see that America is good at some things, but not great at others. Eventually, I’d be interested in doing work that explores how we can use technology to improve access and increase mobility for disadvantaged people, maybe with an MPP or an MBA.

Finally, my Fulbright experience made me a lot more open-minded about moving to Austin, TX from the East Coast! I've learned to appreciate other parts of America a lot more. You come to value what you have, and realize no matter the path you choose, you’ll be fine.  

* Padel or “paddle tennis” is a racket sport popular in Spain that combines elements of tennis, squash and badminton.

You mentioned that your parents had a hard time understanding your decision at first. Has your positive experience changed their minds?

For immigrant parents, they're really just concerned with you finding something stable. Taking a year to teach, and coming back to the US without a job, didn't make sense to my parents. After going to such a great school, they were concerned that I was wasting my opportunities; they wanted to me to go work a job with a clear trajectory. It's hard for immigrant parents who have made so many sacrifices--the last thing they want to see is their children NOT succeed.

When I came back to the US, I felt a little bit like I was a year behind, and like I had to play catch-up with building relationships and experiences. But in the end I had chosen something I really wanted to do—Fulbright--and I was much more selective in finding a job, having had that experience. I was confident I'd be fine no matter what, and that I was making decisions for the right reasons: I thought, I've thought about this and I know it's what I want. I knew I wasn’t jumping into something just because everyone else was doing it. Plus, it’s much easier to get referrals when lots of your friends have jobs! The Penn network is truly great.

My parents were also really happy at how much my Spanish improved. I came to see that a lot of what came off as disapproval was just more their nervousness and fear of the unknown. Coming back and sharing my experience changed their minds. Even just saying "I recognize that you feel this way, but the reality is xyz/this is what's actually happening"--can diminish a lot of that fear.

What’s your advice for anyone at Penn considering Fulbright?

At the end of the day, my advice is to follow what you really want to do, and ignore the noise. Especially at a place like Penn—and I loved Penn!—it’s easy to get caught up in what everyone else is doing. The people pursuing banking and consulting tend to be the loudest—their voices can sometimes drown others’ out—but I see my friends who decided to go different paths now who are really happy. If an experience abroad really speaks to you—I would say do it. This was an experience that I knew I didn’t want to do without, and it ended up being a tremendous opportunity for personal growth and for me to evaluate what I wanted, which I think has translated into long-term professional satisfaction.

My time in Spain made starting a job and moving so much easier; I had already navigated the unknown once, so navigating a big company like Google didn’t feel like such a big deal. Having perfected my Spanish, I’m also known around the office as someone who’s a go-to for Spanish questions, which I’m really proud of. Plus, people recognize and value the Fulbright experience: my team at Google has a few Fulbright scholars, and I was asked about it in most if not all of my interviews at other major companies. People know that Fulbright offers you a perspective that isn’t that easy to come by.

So, even though my experience had a lot of ups and downs, my advice is—take a chance! Don’t let the noise, whether it’s from your family or friends, dictate your decision. At the end of the day only you can live your life, no one else can!