Globetrotting optimist and changemaker Natalia Peña on coming home
After circling the globe, Natalia Peña is now ready to invest everything she’s learned into her home country
“I met Hillary Clinton once at a farmer’s market. I accidentally hit her with a baguette.”
Natalia Peña believes in the kind of optimism found distinctly among millennials. Despite all the dire headlines, she refuses to throw her hands up in defeat and give up. “[ Throughout] history, things change,” she says. She should know, as she just finished her history and government course in Georgetown University with a minor in justice and peace studies.
She’s one of those people you turn to when you need a reminder that there is still hope. “Bubbly” is a word that comes to mind, but it doesn’t quite fit. Peña isn’t positive for merely superficial reasons. She knows that its price comes from constantly moving forward, even when things are no longer Instagram-worthy.
Peña was in Capitol Hill when Donald Trump won the presidency. “I saw a country in mourning,” she recalls. “Our classes were suspended
and we had a prayer vigil.” She was responsible for bringing Anwar Ibrahim to the United States to talk about his struggles before he was imprisoned. She worked for the Malaysian Prime Minister as an intern, focusing on reports that tackled media freedom and suppression in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore. She also worked as an intern for US Congressman Donald Payne, helping him during Congress sessions on anti-gun violence.
“I met Hillary Clinton once at a farmer’s market,” she adds. “I accidentally hit her with a baguette.”
Another powerful woman she has rubbed elbows with is Madeline Albright, her one-time professor. “She has so much buelo,” Peña says of the revered former US Secretary of State.
The same could be said of her, likewise a force with so much momentum. In sharing anecdotes about her life abroad, Peña reveals herself to be not only an inspired agent of change but also someone equipped with the knowledge of how to make it happen. Her optimism is coupled with both energy and a sense of purpose.
She has had this drive for a while now. “I wanted to expose myself to different cultures and to be able to get a sense of how it is to live in a different country, to really learn about it,” she says of her choice to go to Georgetown University for college. Peña figured that going to school there would be the best way to achieve her dream, and once there, she got the chance to travel even more.
The world became her classroom. On top of nabbing fascinating internships, she spent a semester at the University of Edinburgh. Naturally, she went around Europe as well. And just last week, Peña was in Siem Reap, Cambodia, with a historical fiction novel on the origins of the Angkor Wat as her reading companion.
“I think Asia is where the future is. It’s where the most booming economies are and where countries are developing faster.” For her, immersing herself in as many experiences, stories, and places as she can is vital to her own development. “What’s the point of it all if I can’t use it in [my] own life?”
Some of her other travels didn’t require plane tickets. Take her immersion in the Muslim community in Georgetown for example. “I believe in having interfaith dialogue,” she says. “From that experience, I learned that there are no actual walls between countries, between people. In the end, we are all the same.”
The perspective her experiences gave her leads her to believe that her generation should stop overthinking the unnecessary stuff. Instead of the constant need for social media likes and in the face of information overload, Peña proposes a different filter: “It’s not enough to rely on Facebook. We should read the news sites. It’s more important to be self-aware rather than be caught up in other things.” She cites as an example the bigger coverage on Trump’s “covfefe” Tweet versus the fact that he took away government-sponsored healthcare on the same day.
To the possibility that her optimism might eventually diminish given she just graduated this May—a reasonable source of happiness and goodwill—Peña solidly believes in her positive worldview. “I have friends who already have their own NGOs or who have been granted scholarships by Barack Obama personally. They have already made changes as individuals, so I have seen how people can instigate innovation out of their own volition. The people around me inspire me.” She knows she has a lot of work to do, and she’s excited to get it all done. Everything she has been through has led her to this point: going back home. “Anything I want to do, I want to do here,” Peña affirms. She plans to take over the family shipping business as soon as she finishes her next internship in the States. She’d like to learn more about logistics and operations to help “with the legacy that [her] father has built.”
At a time when it can be so difficult to love the Philippines, Peña says, “[That’s] hard [to do for] any other country. There are ups and downs.” For her, it’s not just about choosing the obvious. It’s also about taking responsibility. “I want to take what I have learned and use it to help back here. You can’t expect to change things when you are somewhere else. If you keep complaining about how things are here, it’s all the more important to stay here and change it.
“I love my country,” she continues. “It’s both a blessing and a curse to have Filipino pride, but why not use everything I’ve learned right here at home?” •
“I have friends who already have their own NGOs or who have been granted scholarships by Barack Obama personally. They have already made changes as individuals, so I have seen how people can instigate innovation out of their own volition.”