An Alumni Interview with Clara Canales Gutierrez (BA EPST 2019)

It was a strange feeling, to be meeting someone who I’d heard so much about online and during a pandemic; truly bizarre to be interviewing someone about Bard College Berlin, a university Clara Canales Gutierrez (BA EPST 2019) attended before I even knew it existed, and ask her questions that are unanswerable in uncertain times.

I was contracted by the student blog to write an alumni interview. I accepted their request and was sent a list of three alumni and told that I could choose whichever one I wanted to interview.

I remembered being told stories about Clara Canales Gutierrez. Many of the people I have become close to over the past year are fourth-years and knew Clara when she was a student here at BCB. They have always spoken incredibly highly of her, which led to my decision to interview her.

I called Clara in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. She answered the call in a sun-soaked room, light streaming in the open window beside her.




Julian Thielman: So, you graduated about a year and a half ago. How has your life changed since then, what did you do immediately after graduating, and what are you up to now?

Clara Canales Gutierrez: When I graduated from BCB, I started an economics degree at Humboldt University. And so immediately after BCB, I was doing that. I was, or rather, I am still going to Humboldt and studying economics there. 

You froze. Can you still hear me? 

J: Yeah. Can you still hear me?

C: So, yeah, what else did I do? Sorry, I’m thinking about this really chronologically… I spent another semester in Berlin, going to Humboldt. And then I went to Chile for three months and studied at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). I did a summer school on Latin American economies there and I wrote a paper in collaboration with them on recent migration to Chile from Venezuela and Haiti and on migration networks in Latin America. I’m originally from Chile, so it was really nice to spend the summer there and have an excuse, something to do there that was mine, instead of just visiting my grandparents. It was really lovely. And then I came back to Berlin and continued studying at Humboldt.

J: What are you up to now? You’re in Madrid, right? 

C: Yeah, I’m in Madrid because I was actually in Chile again when the Corona situation sparked up. And I was a little afraid, rightfully so, that I would get stuck in Chile. So I decided to come back, and  my parents and younger brother live in Madrid. I wanted to spend time with them, and that’s why I’m there right now. But I’m coming back to Berlin soon actually. 

[Julian, in the current moment: All my friends have decided to stay in Berlin next year. They say that in uncertain times, it doesn’t make sense to go anywhere new, and, moreover, it makes sense to stay where things are cheap when there is a global recession going on. I picture us all sitting on the floor of a sparsely furnished apartment in the years to come, sharing hummus and a baguette.]

J: Oh cool! Nice. That’s good to hear. How are online classes treating you?

C: It’s… it’s all right. I’m studying economics and I find it kind of terrifying, like difficult. BCB has this super close network in which you’re really guided by your professors and they care about you, and it’s very clear if you didn’t do the work. And before BCB, I went to United World College (UWC), which is also very similar: small classes, a very motivated student body, and very motivated teachers. 

J: Yeah. What would you say makes BCB unique, then, as an institution?

C: Uh, that I guess. BCB being a private institution gives it very different resources in terms of class size and professor engagement. At a place like BCB, the professors notice that the students are motivated so then they put in more work– they get constant feedback from one another and this continuous contact creates a better learning experience. I also think that, at BCB, the administration was really helpful and attentive. Sometimes, studying at a bigger institution can be difficult because it’s easier to fall through the cracks. 

J: Yeah, that makes sense. 

C: BCB was really nice, like really. I remember that last semester, because I graduated a semester earlier than my friends and they were still writing theses. I think I was auditing a class… I was just like, I need to be at BCB because it provides a nice, comforting, intellectual space. I started going to many lectures. I’d never gone to any lectures ever when I was actually a student, but then afterwards I was like, let me participate.

J: Agreed. Obviously the circumstances are very different for the graduating class this year, but do you have any advice that might still hold over or be relevant?

C:  I haven’t thought about this, so I hope I’m not saying very stupid things, but I think the only piece of advice that I feel comfortable saying is that it takes a long time to feel like you know what you want to do with your life. I guess it’s very easy to fall into a post-graduation, existential crisis. I think knowing that really helps. Again, I graduated a semester before my friends and I fell apart a little bit. Like I think even writing a thesis, I was putting a lot of weight on myself by thinking that when I graduated, I was an adult, and I would know what I wanted. It was really hard for me to have those big questions without anyone else also feeling them. I know that a lot of the graduating class is also doing a similar thing, staying in Berlin, maybe working a job not necessarily related to  what you studied, but more like to give yourself some space to figure out where you really want to invest.

I think in that year, a lot of my friends were struggling with these questions of what do I want to do. But I just had that process a little earlier and I think if anyone would have told me that everyone goes through this, and it just takes a while, not even to figure out what you want, but just to feel more calm with the uncertainty, then that really would’ve helped.

So that’s a piece of advice, particularly under these circumstances, I think it’s very easy to ascribe your lack of purpose just to the fact that the world is falling apart. But I think a lot of it is just normal, early-adult uncertainty, so just don’t take yourself too seriously. Can you hear me all right?

J: It was just freezing a little bit, you’re back now.

[On Friday I watch The Graduate with all of my graduating friends. Hanna says that the shots of Dustin Hoffman laying belly up in the pool, floating aimlessly, are a perfect representation of her life right now.]

C: Yeah. It’s definitely still something I’m thinking about a lot. It takes a lot of time to really know what you want and I think I’m definitely still in the process. I feel like the people that don’t have this fear are either advanced humans and just don’t feel that anxiety, or they get into a program right away. And they have a concrete place. They have a way to answer like, “What are you doing with your life?” Because they’re doing a Master’s program or they got a job that they’re semi-interested in. But I think even for those people, the questions arise at some point. It’s about not being afraid to confront these questions and then really giving yourself all the space and time that you can to figure it out. If it’s not a specific answer to what you want to do, then at least find a general direction. 

[The graduating editor of the blog, Claire August,  messages me on Facebook saying that LIFE IS MOVING TOO FAST in all caps. I respond by saying “‘It’s about not being afraid to confront the question of ‘what are you doing with your life?’ and then giving yourself all the space and time you can to figure it out’”, citing Chicago Style as (Canales-Gutierrez 2020).]

J: That was good to hear. I mean, as people keep talking about the “new normal” and no one really knows what that is, everyone must be feeling that uncertainty at least a little bit.

I know that for a lot of people, this is not the most fun question to answer, but do you have any big plans for the future? Like do you know where you see yourself in like 20 years?

C: I mean, it’s not unfun, it’s just uncertain. So I don’t know where to shoot if I’m just going to be leading you astray. 

Clara at Commencement 2019 (Credit: Daniel Kovács)

J: We’re going to revisit this interview in 20 years and you will be judged accordingly. 

C: Yeah, and future me will be like, ‘Clara, you had no idea what you’re talking about’. 

What do I want to do?

Mmm.

Give me a second. Yeah. Okay.

So, very grandly speaking, I want to do something policy-oriented that has a positive social impact. I have no idea if I want to do that from the private sector or in government.

I think it makes a lot of sense to start in the private sector because they train you on efficiency, and because you can network and get to know everyone. Then, when you’ve gathered some type of professional capital, you can use that to do good. I think if I were to try it the other way around, if I were to just start at an NGO or a foundation, I don’t know about growing up and accomplishing the greater systemic change I would like to see.

For example, because of several classes I took at BCB and also because of my own background in migration and integration efforts, I think there is a lot of work to be done there, especially because migration is something that’s only gonna accelerate in the coming years.

It’s not as if migration is going to slow down And its continuation is just going to mean more segregation and more social friction. So I want to think about systems to make migration better, to make it better for both nationals and migrants. Obviously we have to rethink the whole concept of what a “migrant” is. But that’s systemic change I would like to see, and how to approach it is just a question I don’t know how to answer yet.

I think it’s a big endeavor to go from BCB thinking about problems in a very theoretical way to then actually try to systematize it. And that is something I’m really excited to do. 

I think I really like academia and I really appreciated BCB for that. I like ‘thought for the sake of thought,’ and I also am really excited to study further in a Master’s and maybe even a PhD. However, I think career-wise, I don’t want to be in academia. I want to see how my well-intentioned solutions are taken up by the world and maybe switched up, and then I have to switch the original strategy. 

That’s really abstract.

J: But it’s a good answer, I think. Again, hard to be certain about anything. So, I guess in that regard, it’s good to have the broad strokes.

C: So I think the broad strokes of it, also, what I was saying earlier about my advice to the graduating cohort, it’s like knowing where you want to head. And I want to head somewhere where I’m working to make systemic change. Actually drafting policy. Actually working with the community I want to affect and influence positively. 

[While sitting on her balcony, Claire describes her theory that the United States Government delegates some of its responsibilities to colleges and universities, such as the provision of doctors, mental health professionals, and housing. In the time of COVID, BCB is offering discounted housing on campus to students.]

So instead of knowing that I want to work at this institution in 15 years, I’m saying I want to work in social and economic development in these ways, and see where that direction takes me. 

J: Checks out. Hmm. I’ve been advised to move away from the big questions and end this interview with something cute.

C: Wait is there somebody else listening to the interview? 

J: Oh, no, no. Like when I was writing the questions, I was advised to end it in a cute way. Anyways, do you have any favorite memories from BCB any singular instances that stuck out? 

C: *laughs* It’s so clear that we don’t have enough alumni yet. I don’t really have any favorite memories that people going to school there now don’t also have.

Just follow up in five years. Maybe I’ll have more interesting stuff to say. 

Favorite memories… So many, so, so many. I mean, anything taking place on the grass. It’s funny because also the reason why I decided to apply to BCB is because of that poster with all the pretentious books on the grass.

And I feel like that just really sums up what I liked about it. Every time class happened outside or when you’d just get stuck in these eternal conversations outside of the cafeteria. Yeah. Those are my favorite memories. They’re good ones. 

[My flatmate and I run into Vero on her last tour through campus and we sit at a table behind the cafeteria. She remarks on the weather and says that it’s exactly how she expected it to look like on her last day at the cafeteria. She would have chosen a different context though. She wanted everyone to be sitting on the grass, drinking champagne and talking about the last four years.]

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