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.”

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