By David Snyder
Individually, Judith Ballesteros and Delia Jiminez abound with all the personality you can pack into exuberant teenagers. Put them together, and you have a team of unquenchable energy.
So when they joined a group of 102 Mexican high school students traveling to the U.S. as part of the Jóvenes en Acción program in 2014, it came as no surprise that the two young women would approach a visit to a country neither had ever visited with open minds.
“We saw the U.S. in movies, but we found Vermont very green and beautiful, which was a pleasant surprise,” Jiminez says.
Through the Jóvenes en Acción program — supported jointly by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, U.S. community partners, and World Learning — selected students like Ballesteros and Jiminez take part in four weeks of service-learning and cultural immersion in the U.S., with the overall aim being to prepare young leaders to be responsible members of their home communities. Exposed to a range of leadership and language classes at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont, both Ballesteros and Jiminez say they were eager students.
“We learned how to work as a team, and to overcome fears,” Ballesteros says. “We also learned to accept diversity to become leaders.”
After several weeks of living with host families in Baltimore, where both young women visited local non-governmental organizations to learn more about the subject of youth leadership and empowerment, the two returned home to the city of Puebla and made plans to complete the service project component of the program. Having chosen to help empower youth, the pair joined with other Jóvenes en Acción teammates in their school to launch a series of activities aimed at engendering a culture of empowerment and youth leadership among their peers.
“At the beginning we were surprised by the number of people that showed up — like 80 people,” Ballesteros says. “We used activities like leadership work and community service. We gathered clothes for patients at the children’s cancer hospital.”
Yet despite initial enthusiasm for their efforts from their classmates, interest soon began to wane. Undaunted, the team members quickly got together and decided on a new approach.
“We invited professionals in to connect with them,” Jiminez says. “We encouraged others to create clubs, like English Conversation Club, and we gave them a space and helped provide materials.”
First approaching their school leadership, the team members secured permission to use a room at the school for social activities — an exclusive space for students to relax and have open discussions and activities. Once that was done, Ballesteros and Jiminez lobbied the leadership of a local university to provide equipment like chairs, tables, mats, and books for the new space. Today, that space remains a designated student meeting area at the school.
Now attending local universities, where Ballesteros is studying Biotechnology and Jiminez is studying Intercultural Education, both young women agree that the Jóvenes en Acción program shaped them profoundly.
“This program helped me see my environment differently, and it changed the way I thought of myself,” Ballesteros says. “I gained more confidence, and people also see me differently now that I have taken part in this program.”
With leadership development at the core of the Jóvenes en Acción program, participants are exposed to a range of experiences designed to prepare them for the future, lessons Jiminez also took to heart during her time in the program.
“I feel confident in myself. I know I’m not going to pass through my life without having an impact on others,” Jiminez says. “Experience makes you learn more than a book. That’s real life.”