Edited by Alex Finn-Atkins

Growing up in the southwest part of Chicago, Israel appreciated the diversity of his community, but he was often troubled by its economic marginalization. As the son of Mexican immigrants, Israel was particularly attuned to the diverse challenges faced by minority groups in the US.

While still in high school, Israel studied education policy, became a grassroots organizer, and spoke out against the obstacles blocking Chicago youth from educational opportunities.  

So, when Israel stepped onto Fordham University’s buzzing Lincoln Center campus, he had already developed an interest in social justice and policymaking. Not only did Israel earn a bachelor’s degree in Economics, but he also interned for NYC-based nonprofits, worked for a US Senator on Capitol Hill in D.C., and experienced the world of investment banking on Wall Street.

Since college, Israel has specialized in the Latinx economic sector and spent some time in Mexico City in the Fulbright-Garcia Robles Binational Business Program. Israel hopes to draw on these international experiences while working as an advocate for Latinx entrepreneurs and progressive candidates in Chicago.

While Israel was still in Mexico on a Fulbright, we discussed his internship, university courses, and travel excursions. Below you’ll find this conversation, which has been edited and condensed.

How’s life in Mexico City?

It’s been great! I’m here with other Fulbright recipients for 10 months. We actually call ourselves the “BBers” because our program is focused on “Binational Business.” This is unique because a lot of other Fulbright fellowships involve teaching English or doing research.

Mexico City also has tons of start-ups, venture capital firms, technology accelerators, and co-working spaces. It has been an incredible opportunity to learn more about this innovation sector and its fast-growing technology.

What’s a typical work day like for you?

During the week, I work at Linio, an e-commerce start-up, which is considered one of the most influential tech firms in Mexico and operates in 8 Latin American countries. My time there has focused mostly on data analytics and business growth. I work on projects and develop reports for top management, including the CEO.

What I really love about Linio, though, is how young the company is. Most of their employees are in their late 20s, and the executives are in their early 30s, which makes for a relaxed and fun environment. It’s a great place to ask questions and learn about the challenges of running an international company.

That sounds amazing! Are you also taking classes?   

Yes, I’m currently taking graduate courses at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de Mexico. I am also sitting in on an undergraduate class called “Mexican Political Parties.” It’s taught by a professor named Agustin Basave, who is the former president of el Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or the PRD. 

What first interested you about this course?  

Mexican politics used to be dominated by a single party, el Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or what’s more often called the PRI. I wanted to take this course to learn more about how the different political parties have shaped current Mexican politics.

My professor for this course has also been the presidential campaign advisor to Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI candidate who was assassinated during the 1994 election cycle. For those who aren’t too familiar with this history, it’s one of the most controversial moments in Mexican politics.

He’s also been a diplomat, serving as the Mexican ambassador to Ireland and a federal congressman for the northern state of Nuevo Leon. It’s not every day that I have the chance to learn from someone with that kind of resume.

And what have you been doing for fun?

After work, I practice boxing at Nuevo Jordan, one of Mexico City’s most famous gyms. I have also been taking salsa lessons and visiting family in Guadalajara.

Were you able to visit family in Guadalajara as a kid?  

Yes, growing up, I would spend summers in my parent’s small hometown of Puenta Grande, on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Jalisco. Family celebrations, like birthday parties, weddings, or baptisms, helped me get to know my culture in a way I couldn’t back home. The family parties at my grandmother’s were where I first tasted traditional dishes like birria, first listened to live mariachis and bandas norteñas, and first saw elegantly dressed churros on horses. Being able to travel throughout the country has also helped me connect with a culture that I wasn’t able to explore much as a kid.

One of the things that has really surprised me is how vastly different Mexican culture is depending on the region. My experiences outside Guadalajara with my family exposed me to a culture that is more traditional and has more rural influences. But the southern regions, like Oaxaca and Chiapas, have deep pre-Hispanic roots. And Mexico City is really globalized and shares a lot of “Western” culture. I am thankful for this experience because it has helped me redefine my understanding of what it means to be “Mexican.”

Any suggestions for those applying to Fulbright this summer? 

Yes, I have lots!

First, start your application at least 3 months before the deadline. You’ll probably go through about 10 to 12 essay drafts, so it’s also really important to take breaks. This allows you to ask for feedback and re-read your essays with a set of “fresh” eyes.

Second, try to connect with the fellowship on a personal level.  Last January I helped interview the Fulbright semi-finalists, and the applicants that stood out most were the ones who told a captivating story and connected it to their program. This involves thinking deeply about personal experiences. For example, I’m from Chicago, but I grew up in a mostly Mexican immigrant community. In my application, I explained my interest in the first inter-city trade agreement made between my hometown, Chicago, and the program’s location, Mexico City, which aims to facilitate economic cooperation between cities. I explained how I thought the partnership could be used to help bring the fast-growing tech communities in both cities. Although the Fulbright experience is an international one, I found a fascinating way to connect it to my hometown. I think this story helped the selection panel get to know my personality and my interest in supporting immigrant entrepreneurs.

And, lastly, I recommend getting to know the country’s culture. The Fulbright selection committee wants people who are going to engage with the host country. Having a genuine interest in the country’s music, food, celebrities, movies and shows—and then showing it in your application and interview will really make you stand out!