By Abigail Quinn

From Ecuador, Second Year Nivia Bassante Garcia (Class of 2021) shares her experience as an international student at Darden, where she serves on the leadership boards of both the Latin American Student Association and Graduate Women in Business. Nivia reflects on the importance of diversity and women empowerment in business, at Darden and around the world in her own words:

Tell us a little bit about your background. What led you to apply to Darden?  

I am originally from Ecuador, where I studied international business before working in the Ecuadorian Embassy in D.C. for a while. I eventually discovered that my passion was in the private sector, so when I went back to Ecuador, I started working for DHL Express, the courier company. I worked there for four years, but I wanted to go beyond implementing strategy to designing it, so I decided to get my MBA. I started researching programs and what really drew me to Darden was its collaborative community; people really care about you as a person, not your GMAT score or the number of years of work experience you have. I knew having that sense of community would also help me navigate this new culture, especially in the recruitment process when I had to network, something that I had not done before. My husband came with me to Charlottesville and I knew that it was important for him to get involved with the school community, as well. The Darden Partners Association and fellow students have been amazing with both of us. These are examples of the community that drew me to Darden. 

What was the transition from Latin America to the U.S. like as an international student? 

At first, of course, there was culture shock: for example, people in Latin America usually say “hi” with a kiss and a hug, but here, that is not how we do things. At home, we are less structured; so, the U.S.’ fast-paced, organized lifestyle was a culture shock that, because I like to plan and think ahead, I luckily overcame very quickly. The Lady Lions – my fellow women in Section A – always asked me what I needed during my transition to the U.S. If I needed tips for recruiting or information on what networking circles look like, they would prepare me. The entire recruiting process was challenging, but having that support system and knowing that I had people to rely on helped me during this difficult time last year.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your extracurricular experiences at Darden? What led you to get involved in these organizations in your first year?   

LASA hosted a Día de los Muertos-inspired event

The Latin American Student Association (LASA) is partly comprised of a small group of students who come to Darden from Latin America, but we have around 200 members, which is close to a quarter of all residential Darden students; we have expanded beyond solely Latin American students themselves. We attract so many people that want to hang out and connect with other students, so I thought that joining the club would be a good way to contribute to our community and the diversity that Darden has to offer. Being the only woman from Latin America in the class of 2021, I felt like it was my duty to get involved in this community. Last year, we loved bringing our food and traditions to the Darden community, and I wanted to help them grow and communicate what Latin America has to offer: not just the food, but also the cultural richness of our traditions.  

Graduate Women In Business (GWIB) is the largest student-led organization at Darden, but international students were under-represented in the club’s leadership. The 2019-2020 GWIB executive board decided that they needed an international representative on the board. I wanted to get involved because I know how difficult it can be to be from a different culture, especially as a woman trying to enter and succeed in male-dominated business fields. Many people do not understand the baggage that comes with being a woman from a male-dominated society. In my experience, there are not a lot of women who climb the ladder in major companies, and I know that, in Ecuador and around the world, we are still struggling. I love helping future female leaders have a voice at Darden, a voice that will help them throughout their career and possibly empower them to think about their professional lives in a different way going forward. Having my perspective heard at Darden transformed something inside me; people learn to listen and understand your unique experiences and struggles A global perspective on the GWIB board really changes the dynamic of the club’s leadership; now, they have someone that brings this other set of experiences and can understand First Years in a different way.

LASA members distributing food at a LASA barbeque event

What inspired you to run for leadership positions in these organizations? How has the pandemic affected how you engage with fellow members through club events?

I found my voice during my first year at Darden, and I wanted to use it to give back. I knew that the First Years after me would face challenges, so joining club leadership would be a way to reciprocate how I felt and pass on transformative experiences I had in my First Year. Planning events has been hard with the new restrictions during COVID; still, LASA wants to be as inclusive as possible during the pandemic. We hosted a barbeque and several smaller events so that we could get to know as many First Years as we could. It has been a challenge to give the Class of 2022 the full LASA experience, as our normal events are typically socially focused and allow you to disconnect from the stress that the Darden First Year brings. Now, we have had to be creative to find ways to meet all the First Years, such as doing one-on-ones and small group events. The challenge of the pandemic for GWIB has been more on the communication side. For example, it might be harder for First Years looking for a mentor to reach out now – they are not likely going to do a Zoom call just to have a quick chat about recruiting questions or about joining a club board.  I think that reaching out has been hard for many women, especially international women, if they have questions or are just having a hard time.

Do you know in what direction you might want to go after graduation?  

I will move to Atlanta to work for the data center at Google. I am so excited about this opportunity to work with a great company. I just met my team and they seem supportive and collaborative, which is important for me in a work environment, especially after my time at Darden. I look forward to getting involved with Google’s Latin American internal organization, as well.

In the future, I hope to start a scholarship or some other program that will help women in Latin America gain more independence and confidence to come to a school like Darden. The language barrier is one major obstacle stopping many Latin Americans from coming to the U.S.; it is difficult to learn English in South and Central America. This idea is a long-term goal; I am always looking forward, trying to get as much experience and build as many relationships as I can so that I use my network and resources in pursuit of larger goals not only for myself, but for women everywhere.