In this series, the Novogratz Bridge Year office reconnects with program alums to see where life has taken them after Princeton. This installment features Agnes Cho ‘14. In 2009-10, Agnes traveled with the inaugural Bridge Year cohort to Urubamba, Peru, where she collaborated with ProPeru, an organization that focuses on community development concerns in the Sacred Valley region.
Matt Lynn (ML): Hey Agnes! Thanks for chatting with me today. What are you up to these days?
Agnes Cho (AC): Hey Matt, it is nice to meet you! I’m in my first year in a Master’s program in Public Policy at the University of California Berkeley.
ML: Congratulations! Tell me a little bit about how you decided on public policy.
AC: After graduation I worked for a few years for an international impact investment firm that had their Latin American offices in Nicaragua. The firm worked to invest money in microfinance organizations and social enterprises, and I was doing some of the research around the impacts of these investments. But around the time of the 2016 elections in the United States, I began to take a hard look at my own country and community and realized that there was so much work to be done at home. I began to feel like I didn’t want to work in international development anymore.
I decided to return to California, where I am from, and turn my focus toward domestic work. I was still interested in qualitative research, and especially talking to and learning from people. I found a job in non-profit consulting, doing evaluations of local social programs, and then I moved to the San Francisco Bay area about 4 years ago. You probably know that California is going through a horrific housing and homelessness crisis and I quickly realized how urgent the need for structural solutions to this problem are. And for that reason, I decided to go back to school for public policy. My focus is around the housing crisis and particularly legislative reforms that can ensure there are more protections for renters and folks experiencing homelessness.
My future route is to look at how we can create more protections on the books, and in practice, given the unfortunate realities of growing income inequality. One of the most important questions I consider is: how can we ensure that housing is a human right and isn’t commodified?
ML: Thanks for sharing, that is such an important question. How do you think Bridge Year has and continues to inform your path?
AC: Oh, in so many ways! My decision to major in Anthropology and get a certificate in Latin American Studies was directly informed by Bridge Year. I was also fortunate to return to work in Peru with ProPeru to complete my thesis research.
I think I learned to think critically and systematically about what long-term investments in communities look like. When I went on Bridge Year, I held a lot of assumptions about what my impact on the world could be. Underlying many of those assumptions were beliefs I had around what kinds of solutions people needed, and what development should look like. I learned how critically important it is to be able to challenge my own assumptions. It is so vital to listen deeply to people and to understand there is not a linear or direct path to helping people.
We need to work on systems, structures, institutions, and interpersonal relationships to create more agency and power for people in communities affected by injustices. On Bridge Year, I learned that it is about allowing the community to define what their needs are, what their hopes are, and what their vision is, rather than coming in with assumptions about these ideas. Currently, when I am thinking about domestic policies and housing policies, I do not think they should be written in a vacuum or in an air-conditioned office somewhere. They should be written, informed, and implemented by the people who are most impacted.
I would also say the relationships I built were one of the things that brought me the most joy in my day-to-day life on Bridge Year. The friendships I had with my cohort mates and with my homestay family, are ones that are still important to me today. I am the godmother of the youngest daughter in my homestay family, who was born while I was in Peru. I still speak to them regularly, and the generosity of their spirt and their love continues to be part of my life. When I think back on my time in Peru, I don’t always think back on the projects we did, or learning Spanish, but rather I think about these really deep and meaningful connections I wouldn’t have otherwise made. I feel like my heart and my world is bigger because of them.
ML: As we get ready for Bridge Year 2022-23, what advice do you have for prospective students?
AC: Do it! Absolutely, do it! When I reflect on my own experiences on Bridge Year, I am just so profoundly grateful. It opened my mind and allowed me to witness and experience the interconnectedness and interdependence we all share. Something I wish I could have told my 17-year-old self is to focus more on building and maintaining relationships while I was on Bridge Year, rather than focusing on the details of what I would be doing. Bridge Year occurs at such a formative time in our personal development and there is something beautiful about that. Being taken out of my comfort zone and given the opportunity to explore myself and how I move through a world that I was so unaccustomed to helped me to understand myself so much better.