Alumni of the Month: Ignacio De Solminihac Sierralta
In the winter of 2010, Ignacio De Solminihac Sierralta arrived in New York City to start a law internship. He was only in the US for two months, but on the day before his scheduled flight back to Chile, February 27, 2010, the sixth largest earthquake ever recorded hit Chile. The magnitude 8.8 earthquake also set off a devastating tsunami that reached all the way across the Pacific Ocean to Japan. Here’s his story.
Was this J-1 internship your first time in New York?
I had been in the US several times before. I was a high school exchange student in St. Louis, Missouri and had traveled to California and New York on family vacations. Santiago, Chile is over 5,000 miles (over 8,000 km) from New York, NY, but despite the distance, it’s a more popular destination than Europe for my friends and family in Chile.
What was your life like in New York?
I had been to New York for one week as a tourist before coming as an intern. It’s a different kind of life as an intern. I woke up early and took the subway. I experienced the richness of culture in New York. It was a formative experience in terms of language, living alone, ironing shirts, washing dishes. It was a great experience, not just professionally, but in life.
Did you have opportunities to share about Chilean culture?
Most of the lawyers in the firm were American, but others were from London, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Asia. There was a richness of culture at the workplace. On the weekends, I went for walks in Brooklyn and all the other boroughs. When I told people “I’m from Chile,” they would say “What is that?” So I had some opportunities to talk about Chile.
How has your J-1 internship impacted your professional career?
When I went to the States, I was a junior in law school here in Chile. It was only a two month experience, but I always treasure the English practice. I learned many of the English legal terms that we use in my profession. Now that I’ve returned to Chile and finished my degree, I work in the biggest law firm in Chile. Many of our deals are in English with foreign clients. When I presented my resume for a job here, they were very curious about my [J-1 internship] experience. They see it as a good thing because they realize that you speak English well.
Were you in New York on New Year’s Eve?
I was in New York for New Year’s Eve. I had just unpacked, so I went for a walk to Times Square. I didn’t realize about the show. It was very crowded. I didn’t have the most exciting New Year’s, but I expected that because I knew I would be tired. Not exciting, but interesting to see all the people on the streets.
If you could do it all over again, would you do anything differently?
I don’t think so. I took advantage. I worked hard. Traveled as much as I could. I treasured the opportunity to live in the US, in my case, New York City. I learned how to cook, clean my things and wash in an apartment so small I could sleep, make an egg, go to the bathroom and watch TV at the same time. I tried to learn the most I could. In the future, I’d like to do post-graduate studies in the US for an LLM or MBA.
What was the most memorable experience of your time in the US?
I missed the 5th most powerful earthquake in the history of the earth. I was still in New York when it happened, and didn’t know about it. My [supervisor] called and asked “Did you speak to your family? Are they ok?” “No,” I replied. I haven’t talked to them.” “It’s all over the TV!” I hung up the phone and my dad called me and told me all about it. There was a huge earthquake at 3 or 4 in the morning in Chile. Mobile phones were jammed, so he called me from a landline. My flight back home was delayed because the Santiago airport was very damaged. I stayed at a hotel at JFK for one night.
Do you have any advice for other J-1 exchange visitors?
Try to walk as much as you can, because by walking you can get to know the city and people from another perspective. When it didn’t snow, I tried to walk every day. You’d be doing some exercise too. Walk the streets and take a look.