Back in Asuncion, Paraguay, with his three siblings and black Chow Chow, Gonzalo Villalba reflected on his past educational experiences with his impending learnings at the LALA Academy, which will precede his biomedical engineering education at Dartmouth College, serving as a backdrop. “In Paraguay, we have limited resources. Even though I tried to create more spaces for different kinds of learning at my school as the student council president, it was not enough. Our education system is one of the worst in the world,” Gonzalo said. “So I always wanted to challenge myself to go abroad and look for a better education and then come back to Paraguay and spread the knowledge acquired: Spread the things I learned, spread the things I got through that education, and then eventually help Paraguay in any way I can, including its education system.” From a young age, Gonzalo was interested in the STEM field, competing in math, science and robotics olympiads where he often performed well, but then he started noticing and paying more attention to the social issues of his community. With a fascination for STEM, medicine, problem-solving, and helping people, Gonzalo was searching for a way to combine his passions. Eventually, he discovered the field of biomedical engineering where engineering is combined with the life sciences.
“It is used to develop new alternatives for medicine and health care with the objective of improving people’s qualities of life,” Gonzalo said. “When I discovered this career path, it was pretty obvious to me that it was the one for me and that I should pursue it.” His family had also encountered first hand how complex medical situations can be and how there is not always a one-size-fits-all solution. “My sister has a cognitive disability. She has the mind of a young child even though she is already 16 years old,” Gonzalo said. “She needs a lot of help and support from the whole family and professionals. I often spend afternoons taking care of her, and I must admit it usually takes up a lot of my energy. However, she became one of the reasons why I started pursuing biomedical engineering.” Additionally, he is eyeing a minor in human-centered design to become more adept at finding these types of solutions. “Although I seek acceptance for who she is, I hope in the future I can find a better way, a more efficient way, of helping people like her. I want this to be a way I can create positive social impact,” Gonzalo said. For now, the first step in this journey will be attending the LALA Academy with 21 other passionate, young Latin American leaders. “During BLB10 when I volunteered for LALA in Sao Paulo, an entrepreneur called Alex Fisberg gave me a great piece of encouragement, ‘If five people were trapped in an island and there was only one boat that can only handle one person, what do you do? You get on the boat, sail across the water, and go look for help or other boats. That’s you. You are the one on the boat, Gonzalo. Get on that boat and look for help for your own country.’ And that’s exactly what I’m going to do,” Gonzalo said. Taking these challenges in stride, he is just really looking forward to getting out of his comfort zone, growing as a person, being independent, and “becoming more open and aware of people and the world’s issues and problems outside of Paraguay. I really want to expand my perspective and vision of things to a global level, to have a global mindset, and I am excited to do this and challenge myself to thrive in these new environments.”