By David Snyder
Seated on a shaded bench outside of the apartment she rents in Puebla, Mexico, Maria Fernanda Chaparro Rodriguez has a quiet confidence that belies her youth. Now in her last year studying international relations at a nearby university, Rodriguez looks back at the summer of 2013 as a formative time in her young life.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to study before the program,” Rodriguez says. “But I met people in this field who really liked what they did, and others at World Learning as well, so I’d really like to be an ambassador one day, to represent the country externally.”
The program she speaks of is Jóvenes en Acción, a joint effort between World Learning, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, and a range of U.S. partner communities, designed to expose Mexican high school students to U.S. culture and imbue in them a sense of citizenship and lawfulness. Through the program, selected students take part in four weeks of learning, language immersion, and cultural exchange before returning home to carry out service projects aimed at bettering their communities. Once accepted, the first step for participants is to form small teams and agree on a project area.
“We looked for a program focus and decided that the family was the basic unit of society, so that if we could concentrate on that we could help reduce incidences of violence or drug use,” Rodriguez says.
Through the program, the youth then take part in nine days of leadership training at the School of International Training in Vermont — a chance for them to hone their English language skills, discover their leadership talents, and broaden their cultural exposure.
“We learned social and leadership skills, and we learned to communicate,” Rodriguez says. “We met people from Iraq and the U.K., so that was interesting as well.”
After training in Vermont, participants live with host families around the U.S., using their time to meet with local organizations who deal with their area of social focus. Rodriguez and her team members, who spent several weeks with host families in Cleveland, served meals at a local homeless shelter and visited a non-governmental organization specializing in violence against women.
Returning to their home state of Veracruz, Rodriguez and her teammates launched a six month social project on family integration, the final step in the Jóvenes en Acción program.
“At first we worked in our school and had a costume competition for families,” Rodriguez says. “Then we went to the community. In one activity we had family members decorate bags together and make a game like the lottery that they played together. We engaged them.”
Meeting and carrying out activities several times each month, Rodriguez and her team members hoped to create inroads into the local community using family-centered activities like games, dinners, and home visits as a pathway to dialogue about issues of violence and drug abuse. Drawing on their experiences in Vermont, the team also used problem-solving games they had played through the Jóvenes en Acción program, ultimately reaching about 60 families in various communities.
“We used the lessons we learned in the U.S. to communicate with the families and to get them to pay attention to us,” Rodriguez says. “That was helpful.”
In the end, Jóvenes en Acción is designed to prepare the next generation of young leaders for the challenges ahead — an approach that involves classroom and real world experiences both abroad and in their home communities. By exposing participants to different cultures, while at the same time developing their own sense of leadership and confidence, Jóvenes en Acción seeks to plant the seeds of leadership in communities across Mexico.
“The program helped me to grow and mature as a person, and to care about others in the world and in my community,” Rodriguez says. “I really liked working in the community because you could see the faces of those you were helping. From that, I learned to be a good citizen.”