Success,  Travel

Javier De Leon: Taking Lessons in Economic Development from Latin America to San Diego

At just 25 years old, Javier (commonly known as Javi) has picked up quite a few titles; world traveler, scholar, leader, and local success story. 

Born and raised in the South Bay of San Diego, he describes his upbringing as the foundation of his early ambition. “I grew up in a Mexican-American household and had a unique perspective experiencing the cross-cultural blend of customs and traditions from the United States and Mexico,” he said. “My grandmother constantly stressed the importance of retaining mastery of our family’s mother tongue.” 

This innate curiosity to learn more about the world beyond his neighborhood led him to Europe. Through the Gilman scholarship, he went on his first study abroad experience in Barcelona, Spain during his undergraduate years at San Diego State University. “It was at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) where I studied economic development theory and its applications through a micro and macro-economic lens. I also undertook coursework on the Spanish economy and learned a lot about the lasting ramifications of the 2008 financial crisis,” he described. 

Javi (front) with a friend surfing in Salvador, Brazil

Soon after, he was hooked by the allure of meeting and understanding people from all corners of the world.

Prior to graduating with a degree in economics in 2017, he embarked on his second exchange program in São Paulo, Brazil. He worked in Colombia a year later, learning about the country’s rich history and biodiversity. “I learned about the country’s people and economic potential beyond what many of us are used to seeing in mainstream media.” He quickly fell in love with its culture and customs and further developed his Spanish in a business setting. 

Javi (right) with friends at Jalapão State Park in Tocantins, Brazil

A year later, Javi returned to Brazil after reconnecting with a roommate from his first exchange in Spain. He took a job at a consulting firm in São Paulo – becoming fluent in Portuguese, and adding another world experience under his belt. When asked to describe the country, he said “Jeitinho Brasiliero – no phrase better illustrates the most populous country in South America. It translates to the Brazilian way of doing things. The term originates from citizens’ desire in finding a way to accomplish the task at hand, even if that means bending the rule of law.”

CCI Corporación Colombia Internacional – ready for the 2018 FIFA world cup

During his two-year journey abroad, Javi learned to lean on himself during times of loneliness away from family. He learned to go out of his comfort zone and to adapt not only to a new country, but to new sets of cultural norms and languages. “This lesson at its core assisted me in finding my personal identity and figuring out broadly, where my passion lies,” he said. “It gave me a global perspective I would not have received at home.” In fact, the biggest lessons he’s learned abroad were rooted in challenges. 

“The difference between those that end up having a long successful tenure and those that flame out quickly, lies in the willingness to adapt and conform with the vastly different cultures that are present from country to country.” 

After discovering his passion for economic development through education, Javi returned to San Diego – bringing with him a lifetime of travel and friendships. 

From left to right – Javi, with Professor Kartik Chandran from Columbia University, GO Associados colleagues Artur Ferreira, and Gesner Oliveira discussing a plan for sustainability wastewater treatment in rural São Paulo

He now works as an Economic Development Coordinator at the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation (EDC). At EDC, Javi provides direct support to the Advancing San Diego Initiative, which aims to create better alignment between industry and higher education in STEM fields by addressing the skills gap and insufficient local talent pool

In his free time, he hopes to further develop an initiative to provide students from the South Bay with cross-cultural exchanges in Brazil. His dream is to get the next generation of youth to catalyze interest in careers within the public sector. “The intended outcome of the project is to create a more diverse talent pipeline for public sector departments that do not currently reflect the diverse nature of our country, such as the United States Foreign Service,” he said. 

The EDC team at their 3rd annual Summer Bash event in 2019

Javi believes that education and opportunity are keys to creating a dynamic workforce. He acknowledged that higher education is growing increasingly unaffordable. “In 2018, over 600,000 eligible students missed out on $2.9 billion in federal grant money, and that is not including external scholarships,” he said.  

When asked what three pieces of advice he would give to college students looking to get into community work, his answer was simple. “Always be on the lookout for the next opportunity – whether it’s a scholarship, college fair, or internship.”

“Get involved. Find a mentor that can take you under your wing. Decide where you specifically hope to make a difference with your community and how you believe you can provide the biggest impact,” he said.

After years of navigating college, witnessing the historic sites of Europe and South America, and contributing to his hometown, Javi has more plans up his sleeve. 

And he’s just getting started. 


Marjon is the Creator of Third-Culture Thoughts. A political nerd and basketball enthusiast at heart, he writes about everything related to culture and the international experience.