• Ken Baeza

Meeting my hero: Duolingo's Creator

A couple of months ago, United States President Donald Trump suspended visas for many foreign workers. Duolingo Creator Luis Von Ahn, who is a Guatemalan immigrant himself, responded to the new measures with a Tweet, stating that if these policies continue, Duolingo will be forced to move jobs to Canada. Being a Guatemalan, I can see how detrimental these measures can be to thousands of people from my country; and while I truly advocate in favor of qualified immigrants being allowed to work in the United States, I’m not here to talk about government policies. 

I’m here to share the story of how I met Luis Von Ahn.

As a first-year student at United World College East Africa, I have friends from all over the world: Italy, Belarus, the United States, Argentina, Vietnam, and around fifty other countries. Whenever I tell someone that I’m from Guatemala, they usually raise an eyebrow, and ask me, “Where is that?” I always answer by saying,  “Oh, it’s this small country below Mexico - it’s in Central America.” But I sometimes like to add, with a somewhat proud tone, “It’s where Luis Von Ahn, the creator of Duolingo and CAPTCHA, is from.” If I felt like bragging a little more, I’d add: “I went to the same high school as him."

I love to tell them that.

Everyone knows what Duolingo is. Everyone has tried to learn Spanish at least once, and while not everyone knows what CAPTCHA is, just by telling them “CAPTCHA is a software that makes you prove you’re not a robot before creating new accounts on the internet” they understand. 

If you ask a random Guatemalan teenager if there is someone from their country who makes them proud, chances are that they will say “Luis Von Ahn”. I remember that back in 2013, when I was in Grade Six, I discovered that Duolingo and CAPTCHA were created by a Guatemalan. I felt so proud of my country.

Later, I found out that he went to the American School of Guatemala, and was part of the Programa de Bachillerato Avanzado (PBA) -  a scholarship program that chooses 25 of the best 10th grade students of the country to finish high school at Guatemala’s most prestigious private school. 

Luis Von Ahn and his success story made me want to be part of PBA. Thus, four years later, I applied. I successfully received one of the 25 scholarships. I felt so proud to tell my friends that I’d be going to the same high school as Duolingo’s creator. 

Of course, I was disappointed that during my time there, I didn’t have the chance to meet Luis even once (he is known for visiting the school once every couple of years).

Before finishing my second year of PBA, I received a scholarship to attend UWC East Africa, so I moved to Tanzania. After the COVID-19 outbreak reached Arusha, a town near the school, in April, I had to go back to Guatemala. I could have never expected the surprise that was waiting for me back home.

One day, a friend from the American School of Guatemala texted me saying, “Hey Ken, the school organized a surprise for PBA students, and they have invited you too.” I wondered what it was about. I clicked the link, which led to a video conference…

I was shocked.

Luis Von Ahn was there.

I was on a call with LUIS VON AHN. 

The school had arranged an exclusive Q&A session for the 25 students who were part of the scholarship program. My mind was blown. I was there, sitting in front of my desk, looking at my hero.

I had imagined myself interviewing him multiple times - and now the time had finally come (in the least expected moment). I raised my hand, and I was given the chance to speak. 

“Hi,” I said, with a nervous tone.

“My name is Ken, and it’s an honor for me to be talking to you.” I know, it sounds cliché, but I wasn’t expecting to meet Luis Von Ahn…

He looked at me, and smiled. 

The call lasted one hour, and we had the chance to ask as many questions as we could. Most people were too shy to speak, so I had a lot of chances to talk to him. 

While I could tell you many interesting things that probably no one knows about him (for instance, he missed his High School graduation and he is terrible at learning languages), I’d like to share something very specific he said that I could really relate to. He said that it wasn’t until he had left Guatemala and traveled around the world that he realized how many things he had taken for granted. After travelling around the world, he realized that there were many things from Guatemala that he really missed. 

Now that is something that I can definitely agree with. Most Guatemalans don’t like their country: they say it’s underdeveloped, unjust, corrupt, has a terrible education system, it’s filled with dishonest and irresponsible people, and it’s extremely conservative. I must confess that there were times I felt that way, but after living one year abroad, I came to realize how lucky I was to be Guatemalan. 

I came to realize that there were many things from Guatemala that I had taken for granted. High schools students in Guatemala enjoy a relatively high degree of freedom of expression (even higher than many so-called “liberal” countries), our weather is truly fantastic (that’s why Guatemala is called the “Land of Eternal Spring”), the variety of fruits and vegetables is enviable, and Guatemalan people are one of the kindest people on Earth. 

So, from this extraordinary experience, I can say that not only was I able to meet the person who I admire the most, but I was also able to reflect on how blessed I am to be able to call myself a Guatemalan. And I believe this is a lesson every single one of us could apply in our lives: no matter how bad you think your country is, there’s always something that will make it special - don’t take anything for granted, and be grateful for what is given to you.