#WeAreElliott: Johanna Cajina

Johanna Cajina, M.A. Latin American and Hemispheric Studies, 2023, #WeAreElliott

Johanna Cajina is a second-year master’s candidate in the Latin American and Hemispheric Studies program at the Elliott School, concentrating in political science and literature. She is also a Graduate Fellow at the GW Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute and the co-president of LATAM@GW. Prior to her graduate studies, Johanna was the Associate Director of an international non-profit based out of Syracuse, NY. She was born in Managua, Nicaragua and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland.

When did you realize you wanted an international career? What led you to choose the Elliott School?

Prior to my graduate studies, I served as the Associate Director of an international non-profit, dividing my time between Syracuse, New York and Alajuela, Costa Rica. In late 2016, while at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, I came across thousands of Haitian and Cuban migrants. By that time, they had been stranded at the border for several months due to the Nicaraguan government denying them entry. I was saddened not only by the conditions in the makeshift camps but also the silence in the news. Bearing witness to the humanitarian need that day strengthened my desire to learn how policies impact the Latin American region.

I was drawn to the Elliott School because of its location, professors, and interdisciplinary style. In my first week of graduate studies, I walked past the Department of State and the Organization of American States in awe of the proximity between where I was studying international issues and where I could apply that knowledge. Academically, I study the reciprocal influence of politics and literature. At the Elliott School, I have found professors and courses that help me contextualize the lived realities, historical memories, and dreams for the future of the region in those fields.

What has been your most rewarding academic experience at the Elliott School and why?

This fall, I will be doing an individualized academic project with Elliott School professor, Dr. Manuel Cuellar. The project will be a qualitative research study on album cover designs of narco-corridos, a controversial ballad genre that originated in Mexico. My enrollment in independent study was particularly rewarding because it allows me to pursue unique research interests while also being advised by Elliott School faculty.

I would not have pursued this option had it not been for a qualitative research method course I took my first semester. The course was so transformative that the following semester I took qualitative data analysis. It was intimidating at first because I was the only master’s student in a classroom full of doctoral candidates, but they quickly became some of my best mentors. The course also gave me the opportunity to practice coding data. These two courses are the reason why I am doing my own qualitative research study in the fall and why I would like to pursue a career in research after graduation.

Where do you currently work or intern, and how does it fit in with your career goals?

I am a Graduate Fellow at the GW Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute, where I develop and execute the Institute’s communications strategy. Most recently, I produced tutorial videos for an NIH-funded study led by GW researchers. Experiences like these have helped me gain many skills, including the ability to receive and present information in a manner others can understand. In my role, I use visual arts to creatively showcase the accomplishments of staff, affiliate faculty, and students, as well as events and research projects. My role has allowed me to think of ways to creatively present my research findings.  

Describe the pros and cons of being a full-time versus part-time student at the Elliott School.

At the Admitted Student Panel, the resounding advice was to be a full-time student with a part-time job, or vice versa. I was very grateful for that advice. With a part-time job, I can devote time to my classwork and immerse myself in extracurricular activities (check out LATAM@GW on GW Engage!). As a full-time student, I am also fortunate to complete my degree in two years. So far, the primary drawback has been adjusting to a new budget as I was a full-time working professional prior to attending grad school.    

What advice do you have for incoming students who are starting to think about internship and work opportunities?

I would encourage incoming students to look for employment opportunities at GW. It helps build connections at the University, and it helps student employees to stay tuned in to the plethora of events happening on campus. Also, in my experience as a student worker, supervisors are understanding if you need extra study time, especially at the height of midterms and finals season. I would also encourage incoming students to meet with their academic advisor early and often! My academic advisor encouraged me to do the independent study option, and meeting with them has helped me stay on track with my degree requirements.

What are 3 books everyone should read and why?

  1. Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo
  2. El Llano en llamas (The Burning Plain) by Juan Rulfo
  3. A Hammock Beneath the Mangoes by multiple authors

If you are new to Latin American literature, I highly recommend books in the genre of magical realism! These books also offer concise yet powerful stories that capture realities of the region.


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The #WeAreElliott profile series is managed by the Elliott School Office of Graduate Admissions and highlights current students to answer common questions posed by prospective, incoming, and current students. For more information on this series or to submit questions, e-mail the Office of Graduate Admissions at esiagrad@gwu.edu.

The views expressed by students profiled do not necessarily represent those of organizations they work for, are affiliated with, or the Elliott School of International Affairs.