Laetitia builds lasting links with Latin America
Laetitia Laubscher has distant family ties with Latin America, but it is her education and work experiences in the region which have cemented lasting bonds.
Laetitia was awarded two Prime Minister’s Scholarships for Latin America (PMSLA) in 2017 and 2018 which gave her the opportunity to live, study and work in Chile, building on her experience of a 2012 cultural exchange to Argentina.
“I believe an exchange is an essential part of the university experience – in today’s world it’s a fundamental skill to be able to appreciate and understand how other cultures approach the same (and different) kinds of problems,” she says.
“Of all of my experiences at university, my exchanges were the most formative.”
Laetitia arrived in New Zealand from South Africa with her family aged 12. But it was her relatives who fled to Argentina over a century ago that piqued her interest in learning more about the region. “I was always curious about the place they had gone to.”
She started learning Spanish in high school and continued while studying for her Bachelor of Arts. “I chose Spanish because I knew it was one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world and how beneficial it would be to be able to connect with that many people – as well as loving Latin American movies like Amores Perros.”
Building language skills
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Laetitia set goals at every stage of her journey. In Argentina, she transformed her Spanish skills from “dial up internet speed” to conversational. On her PMSLA semester exchange as a law student, at the prestigious Pontificial Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, she decided to push herself even further by taking courses alongside native speakers.
“After that university experience, I thought that if I could study in the language, I could probably work in the language too. So, I went back to Chile again and took up an internship as a research assistant.”
She worked for Espacio Público, an independent think tank actively contributing to Latin American public policy development through empirical research.
“Then I thought if I can do that, maybe I can do a regular job.” Through the confidence and networks she built while at Espacio Público, she soon after secured a role as a Communications Consultant at the United Nations Development Programme in Chile, travelling across Chile to tell stories of sustainable development.
“Through all these opportunities, I continued to build my confidence, skill set, and network. Every time I’ve gone overseas, I feel like I’ve built on the foundation laid by the previous experience.”
Laetitia is grateful the PMSLA gave her the opportunity to further immerse herself in Latin American culture. “Latin Americans are a very hospitable and welcoming people.”
She says she met plenty of other internationals but made the deliberate decision to only live with locals. “The biggest piece of advice I can give is to go stay in a flat where English isn’t spoken. Your language learning progress will be astronomical.”
Stepping into the unknown
As someone with multiple qualifications, three overseas exchanges, and an interesting career spanning research and multimedia storytelling, Laetitia says that taking a step into the unknown is an empowering experience.
“It just requires opening yourself up to a different culture and different ways of doing things and seeing what happens. Even being willing to make mistakes and to learn from those is an important life skill.”
“I’ve never considered it being bold to go overseas, it’s just having curiosity.”
Laetitia values the lasting friendships she has made, and how those connections have impacted her worldview. “Reading about a culture online is completely different from living it. There’s nothing like understanding a country from the ground level.”
Returning home and inspired by her experience, Laetitia wanted to stay connected with Latin America and continue building her network but struggled to find an appropriate forum. Fortunately, the Latin America New Zealand Business Council (LANZBC) supported her LANZBC Young Professionals Network project proposal, and the network is now well established with more than 200 members.
“I can’t speak highly enough of the founding committee, some of whom also had a PMSLA experience. I’m happy that there’s a space now for Kiwis to come home and continue to build their language and business skills and stay connected to Latin America – and Latin Americans to expand their professional network too.”
Laetitia knows that Latin America will always play a big part in her life. “It continues to weave its way into my life in surprising ways. I know I will keep building on those experiences I’ve had and they will help propel me forward, whichever direction I go in.”
“There’s always going to be a bit of Latin America which stays with me.”