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Life is an opportunity, take it

By: Gabriela María Fretes Centurión - a BECAL scholar from Paraguay and a PhD fellow in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

"Gabi, why are you going to leave the country? There are also opportunities here", I remembered these words a few years ago when I was concluding my undergraduate studies. Many of us think that everything ends here, nevertheless here is where a new path begins. In my case, I already knew where I was going to go for my master's degree even before I began my studies at this particular University. A swimming competition took me to Chile, so when I finished my undergraduate studies I found myself searching for universities where I could pursue graduate studies in nutrition in this country. I discovered the Institute of Nutrition and Food Technology (Instituto de Nutrición y Tecnología de los Alimentos, INTA) at Universidad de Chile, and in some way, I felt a connection to this place. The Institute only offered graduate programs in this field and because my undergraduate concentration has been in Basic Sciences and Technology, I decided to pursue a second undergraduate studies in Nutrition in my country and then go abroad seeking to specialize.

First day of classes at INTA, Universidad de Chile (March 2011)

Leaving the country is not an easy decision to make, however, the experience is so enriching not only at a professional level, but also at a personal level. Pursuing a master's degree abroad opened the doors to new cultures, established connections with wonderful people from other countries, and allowed me to share my culture with others. Back in July of 2010 when I started looking for scholarships at a master's degree level, compared to June of 2017 when I was going through the same process at the Ph.D. level, the situation was completely different. Over the past decade, the opportunities have grown exponentially. After an intense search, I applied to the scholarship offered by the International Cooperation Agency of Chile (Agencia de Cooperación Internacional de Chile, AgCI) through the Secretariat of Technical Planning (Secretaria Técnica de Planificación, STP). Like all scholarships, the paperwork seemed endless, but the goal was clear.

View of Santiago, Chile - photo taken from Cerro Maquehue (2012)

When I arrived with a group of grantees for the visa interview at the Consulate of Chile in Paraguay, I found myself surrounded by people with extensive work experience and vast involvement in their areas, which is why at that moment I felt at a disadvantage. Not only I had just finished my undergraduate studies, I did not have much experience other than being an Assistant Professor at the University for a few months, and I was the youngest applicant from the applicant pool. A month later, I woke up with a phone call with the news that I had been selected along with three other compatriots to begin graduate studies in March 2011. It was the beginning of one of the most enriching experiences of my life and demonstrated to me that we have to try, the most we can get as an answer is a no, but this should not discourage us from continuing to try. The times in Chile were unforgettable. Living in a big city like Santiago, sharing with colleagues from all over Latin America, strengthening friendships, visiting wonderful places for field research in one of the most renowned and prestigious nutrition research institutions in the region were experiences that are already part of my book of life.

Recognition for Outstanding Scholar of Paraguay by the Agency of International Cooperation of Chile (AgCI) (December 2012)

Although my faculty advisors already suggested that I should pursue PhD studies at the end of the master’s program, I made the decision to return to Paraguay to obtain some professional experience and then rethink the idea of ​​doing doctoral studies. Returning to the country was not easy, but there are so many things that are yet to be done in my country that any contribution, no matter how small, can make great changes. I started to coordinate a group of volunteers of Food Revolution Paraguay movement to teach at the University and to launch an enterprise. I had the opportunity to represent Paraguay at several international events and continue to build a network. Then there was an opportunity to serve at the Ministry of Public Health and Social Welfare, where I worked for more than 2 years. During this time, I decided it was time to leave again and continue with my professional training.

In June 2016, the BECAL Doctoral Scholarship Program (Programa Nacional de Becas de Postgrados en el Exterior Don Carlos Antonio López) announced a scholarship opportunity to pursue PhD studies in the United States. Making the decision to pursue graduate studies abroad is like a marriage commitment; it really is one of those critical decisions in life. Though the English language was a barrier, I still decided to apply for the scholarship. The process was exhausting, in parts frustrating, but finally rewarding.

I was awarded a BECAL scholarship and admitted to the top nutrition programs in the United States: Columbia University, Northeastern University, and Tufts University.

Moreover, I had the opportunity to refine my language skills in Northampton, Massachusetts before I began my studies this past September. To conclude, I am now at Tufts University and I feel so grateful to have accepted the challenge. I know it will be a new journey, but I will always be raising the flag for Paraguay and continuing to collaborate from afar while the country thrives on its progress.

Follow Gabriela on Twitter @gabifretes

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