By David Snyder
When Brenda Vasquez learned she had been accepted into the Jóvenes en Acción program, there was never a question as to what her focus topic would be.
“In Oaxaca we had a serious problem with education,” Vasquez says. “The teachers are often on strike, because it’s the poorest state in Mexico, so the level of education is very poor.”
As a 2013 Jóvenes en Acción participant, Vasquez traveled to the U.S. as one of several students from her home state in Mexico. Through the program — a partnership between the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, various U.S. communities, and World Learning — Vasquez joined other high school-aged Mexican youth for a four-week service-learning experience, immersing themselves in U.S. culture through host family living and honing their English language skills. Most importantly, the youths took part in a range of leadership trainings aimed at equipping them with the skills they needed to carry out designated service projects upon returning to Mexico.
“We learned many things about leadership and we gained confidence,” Vasquez says. “We learned how to reach agreement with others, which helped us when we started our project here.”
Recognizing the need to keep children in school in her home state of Oaxaca, Vasquez and her fellow Jóvenes en Acción classmates focused their attention on dropout prevention. As high school students, the team of four focused on helping secondary school students stay in school — a challenge in a state with a high population of indigenous people and a poor culture of higher education.
“We started activities like sports and a tutoring program for kids who had problems with subjects like math or grammar,” Vasquez says.
Recruiting five other high school classmates to help, the Jóvenes en Acción graduates conducted activities every weekend for over five months, working regularly with about 30 of their target school’s 300 students. During that time, Vasquez says, she and the other students formed close bonds with the youth they mentored.
“I think that those who participated in our project became more interested in learning, and to be better people,” Vasquez says. “I think we inspired them, and that’s important.”
So close was their bond, Vasquez says, that their work continued long after their service project officially ended. Many of the students they tutored still continue their relationship via Facebook, Vasquez says. And while it can sometimes be challenging to measure the long-term impact of such support, Vasquez says that was not the case for her.
“Many of the students were in their last year of secondary school when I worked with them, so the fact that I saw them the next year in my high school was proof that the program worked,” Vasquez says. “Many still keep in touch.”
Now at university studying environmental engineering, Vasquez looks back on her experience with Jóvenes en Acción fondly. Having studied in Vermont and lived with a host family in Chicago, Vasquez says the experience opened her eyes not only to the broader world, but also to the role she can play in affecting change in her community.
“I think the diversity of thinking I was exposed to helped,” Vasquez says. “Even if you think your issue is small, when you add it together with the other issues in the world, it’s bigger than you. I learned I could make an impact.”