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Breakfast with the President of Costa Rica: What meeting a head of state meant to me

This past Thursday, I had breakfast with the Former President of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado Quesada. He was invited to deliver the Bartels World Affairs Lecture this year at Cornell and he spoke on the topic "Fighting for Democracy and the Planet".

I attended the breakfast in my capacity as the former Vice President of the Caribbean Students' Association at Cornell, and I had the opportunity to talk to President Alvarado and discuss with him how changes towards sustainability that we want to see in the world can oftentimes be informed by the past.

His lecture discussed how his administration was value-driven, and worked towards achieving goals such as egalitarian marriage, economical reform and sustainable development. He told us how he never really planned to run for President, and at the breakfast he even joked that he put forward that value-driven platform with no real expectation to win the nomination because of the relative extremity of his platform in a historically conservative society. That made his talk all the more impactful, because you were able to see how someone who was genuinely passionate about the cause that he championed took up the mantle to be the change that he wanted to see in the world. For him, it wasn't about power, nor about popularity or politics, it was about effecting the change in his country that he realized he was uniquely positioned to enact.

One of the main points that he drove home is that you're never too small to enact the change that you want to see in the world, and it seriously got me thinking about that. In particular, it got me thinking about how a lot of times, we tend to shy away from our big ideas because we second-guess ourselves, or feel like we aren't yet at the point where we can enact real change. I personally have felt like that many times, where I think big about how I can change things such as the education system in Jamaica, but then feel too small to make any sort of a difference.

But the truth is, big changes always start small.

He talked about how as President, he never saw power as something that he necessarily craved, but rather as something that was given to him by the people to wield and to act as a mouthpiece for their demands. His perspective on power was very much people-centric, and as the youngest President of Costa Rica in over a century, his platform was relatable and felt very relevant to young people like myself. He didn't see himself as someone who was called to be greater-than-thou, but rather as an ordinary person doing necessary work and stepping up to the plate when nobody else would. That was super inspiring. Costa Rica, as a small Latin American country, under President Alvarado's leadership, was able to be a trailblazer in terms of policy and set an example for the world in terms of sustainability. So much so that Cornell University decided to recognize him as Bartel Speaker of the year. Just like we say in Jamaica, "dem likkle but dem tallawah" (small but mighty).

After listening to the lecture, and hearing about how President Alvarado turned his passion into a project, I felt something really familiar about the way in which he achieved what he achieved, and somehow his story made the world feel much more real.

By that, I mean meeting the head of state of a Latin American country personified this idea of success that oftentimes feels aloof. It reminded me that the people that we hold to higher standards - our Presidents, Prime Ministers, University administrators and other people in positions of power - are people too.

And trust me I know, it seems like a pretty obvious realisation, but somehow it holds real power in acknowledging that the people who seem so distant because of their status and position are people too.

And the point here isn't to say that we shouldn't hold them accountable - it's actually exactly the opposite. It's to say that that we should hold ourselves accountable. While yes, people in positions of power have great responsibility and of course we are right to have expectations of them to deliver on their promises and serve the people they are meant to serve, we also have to make sure that we're not expecting something of someone while sitting on our own hands.

Meeting the President made me realise that if you really want to change something, whether that's something huge like climate policy or something small like the way you separate your garbage at home, all you really have to do is start. In my own life, I'll be honest, I've never really been one to separate recycling from regular garbage, but living on my own recently, I decided to make the tiny effort to have a separate garbage bag for my recycling. It's not hard, nor will it completely save the planet, but to me it means taking control of something small and making a change.

And that brings me back to that point that I made earlier - big changes always start small.

It's really easy to feel as if you can't change anything, or like your contribution to a huge problem is so minuscule that it doesn't even make sense to try. But honestly, to do something huge like legalise same-sex marriage in Costa Rica, it only took one man to put it on his political agenda and run for office. And in very much the same way, to do something completely radical (honestly, whether radically good or bad), it only takes one person thinking differently.

For me, it re-oriented my perspective on how I'll approach life after graduation. As I enter the real world, it means remembering that to change what I want to change, I just have to take up the mantle and do it. For example, if I want to see a Caribbean community at JPMorgan Chase & Co, it means being the intern to push it forward. It means always keeping in mind that no matter how small I might feel in a huge world, I can still make a difference.

To me, meeting a head of state wasn't just a privilege to talk to someone in a position of power. It was an opportunity to remember that people in power are people too, and that no matter how small the person or the country, the potential for impact is huge.

It only takes one, and sometimes it's on us to be that one.

Until next Sunday,

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