By David Snyder
Though it has been just a week since he graduated from high school in Mexico City, Gerardo Alan seems already to have matured beyond his surroundings. Returning to the school to meet a visitor, he is articulate and confident, open minded and insightful — perhaps the perfect representative of the Jóvenes en Acción ideal.
A 2015 participant in the program — a joint partnership between the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, various U.S. partner communities, and World Learning — Alan and his fellow teammates seized every learning opportunity the four-week program presented, from their leadership and language lessons in Vermont to their host family experience in Reno, Nevada.
“In Reno I was surprised by the diversity,” Alan says. “It made me reconfigure my preconceptions about the U.S. It really is a country founded by immigrants.”
Through the program, Alan joined 79 other Mexican high school students on a cultural immersion experience designed to empower the next generation of Mexico’s leaders with the skills they need to thrive. Upon their return to Mexico, Alan and his fellow Jóvenes en Acción participants implemented an array of projects aimed at combatting social problems in their communities and helping build a culture of lawfulness, an essential part of the program.
“We decided to focus on dating violence because we thought that was a more approachable subject for students, and we wanted to focus on students so we could work with our classmates,” Alan says.
After first attempting to educate fellow students through a series of lectures, Alan and his teammates met with frustration. For their first meeting, only five students showed up. So the team quickly regrouped to develop a new strategy.
“We changed our focus and made [our talks] more dynamic,” Alan says. “We did sports and art activities, rather than just lecturing about violence.”
As word of the project began to spread, Alan says, the team quickly developed new approaches to garner the interest of their fellow students.
“We invited speakers, like the mother of one of our teammates who worked as a social counselor, to talk to a couple of classes about violence,” Alan says. “We also brought in a psychologist who spoke on how to spot cases of violence among young people.”
Meeting sometimes weekly to discuss their approach, share information, and plan activities, Alan and his teammates saw the impact of their efforts bear fruit. Soon, Alan says, discussions about dating violence became more open, and he and his team members began receiving congratulatory comments from fellow students on their Facebook page about their work.
“A couple people told us that before this they hadn’t even considered that they were in violent relationship,” Alan says. “People became interested in doing their own projects, so we measured success in that light.”
Looking back on his Jóvenes en Acción experience, Alan says he learned much about his own abilities, and developed a more critical perspective on the world around him. Having received a full scholarship to Rhode Island’s prestigious Brown University, where he plans to major in Gender Studies, Alan says his experience with Jóvenes en Acción directly contributed to his newfound direction in life.
“I think with this training I acquired the ability to communicate better and get people engaged,” Alan says. “But I also learned that I needed to improve, so that’s why I decided to go and study in the U.S., so I can bring new ideas back home.”