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A Handy Set of Rules for Wherever Life Leads You

Published: May 16, 2017

A personal philosophy doesn’t just materialize out of thin air. It emerges over time—from childhood into adulthood—with experiences layered on top of one another. For me, it has been a process of teasing lessons from my past as a guide to working respectfully with others in new contexts. 

I am lucky to have parents who collect cookbooks from other cultures, as the recipes gave me a sense of curiosity about the world at a young age. As a Girl Scout, I practiced altruism while working on a team. I took French in high school and learned not just another way of expressing myself, but also different ways of looking at an issue.

Hackensack Staff
While chatting over an authentic French meal at camp,
this group of friends and colleagues counted
exactly 100 summers of experience at
Concordia Language Villages

College and work environments presented opportunities to explore these interests further: studying abroad in France and Sweden, advocating for underprivileged students as an ESL and French teacher in my native Wisconsin, and working on a diverse team at Lac du Bois, one of the French Language Villages, near Hackensack, Minn.

I eventually returned to graduate school to study French and International Development which included working in nonprofits furthering women’s education in Haiti and its diaspora. And for the past two and a half years, I have coordinated a nonprofit supporting indigenous women’s co-ops and organizing health and nutrition projects in the small communities around Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.  

Before heading off to Haiti and Guatemala, I had never been very far from the familiar. Yet, in each place, I was intrigued by a team setting, a chance to help others, and a variety of complex issues that required examination—things very familiar to me. Navigating these new situations illuminated a set of life rules that I had been developing and testing over time:

Be critical. The world is a better place when we all pitch in, as feel-good lyrics to Girl Scout songs would suggest. This does require a critical eye, though. What is “good” in one context may not be in another. So it’s important to research, reflect, and criticize your own work and impulses at times. For example, if you give a woman school supplies to take home and practice her letters, and a man in her family scolds her and takes them from her, have you done a good deed?

Check your privilege at the door. I’m not special. But the fact that I have flown on a plane to Guatemala makes me privileged. This means simply that I have certain advantages in life because of where I come from. It’s important not to confuse my origins with being special. And it’s important to advocate for and support—but not overpower—anyone I work with who doesn’t have the same advantages as I do.

Teaching in Guatemala
Jacqueline demonstrating teaching tools
in an afterschool program on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

Confidence is great, but competence is even better. You should work hard and be the best you can be, no matter the job and wherever you go, so as to best serve the needs of the team or of the population at hand. If you want to teach indigenous Guatemalan kids to read, learn how to teach first. They deserve the best from you, so put in the work and go where you have the most to offer.

Ask more than you answer. So you have done the work and are now an expert in early childhood literacy. Hoorah! But it turns out you're not an expert on early childhood literacy in this place with these kids in this community. That requires cultural sensitivity. It requires respect and a genuine curiosity for how others see the world and the project. Often, the best thing you can do is to ask the right questions of those around you, as they are the ones with cultural standing and local expertise.

Curiosity has led me down paths I couldn’t have anticipated, and it undoubtedly will again. And wherever I go, I will be challenged. So I carry these rules with me as the familiar and simple approach to the unfamiliar and complex.

Jaclyn Mauer in Guatemala
After traveling around Lake Atitlán visiting artisans with an amazing colleague and coordinator of a large women’s textile cooperative, Jacqueline sits down to pose for some fancy photos.

About the Author

Jackie Jacqueline Mauer holds a teaching degree in French and ESL, as well as a Professional Masters in French and International Development. A proud and dedicated Wisconsinite, she has lived and worked in five countries so far—returning every summer to Lac du Bois Hackensack since discovering it in college. Learn more about some of her recent projects working with a women’s co-op and a rural middle school in Guatemala.

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