By David Snyder
When a teacher first approached her about applying for Jóvenes en Acción, Karla Scanda was not quite sure what to make of the opportunity. The year was 2011, and no students from her home state of Oaxaca, Mexico, had yet participated in the program. But her uncertainty soon turned to excitement, and then resolve, when she learned she could use the experience to fight a growing problem in her community.
“At that time there were many friends of ours who had free time, but instead of using it for something productive, they fell into addiction,” Scanda says.
After being accepted into Jóvenes en Acción, Scanda and four others from Oaxaca joined a group of 67 Mexican high school students traveling to the U.S. for four weeks of service-learning, language studies, and cultural immersion. Through the program — a joint partnership between the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, the Mexican Ministry of Education, various U.S. partner communities, and World Learning — Scanda and her teammates spent a week in Vermont at World Learning’s School for International Training learning leadership skills before traveling to Baltimore. There, they spent two weeks living with a host family, and taking advantage of their time to learn as much as they could about substance abuse.
“Our time in the U.S. was very helpful for us, because it gave us ideas on how to implement our project,” Scanda says. “We met with so many [non-governmental organizations] there to see their approach to substance abuse.”
As a key element of the program, participants return to their communities to implement social service projects. Having decided to focus on the problem of drug addiction, Scanda and her teammates recruited their high school principal, other faculty, and the town mayor to support their agenda. Wanting to reach younger students before they were exposed to drugs, Scanda and her team decided to focus their efforts on students in their own former secondary school.
“We based our project on extracurricular activities for the students, like art and sports” Scanda says. “We would use those times to talk about substance abuse and its consequences.”
Meeting weekly to discuss and plan their activities, Scanda and her team members sought to spread information about the hazards of addiction any way they could. After launching a Facebook page to educate students about the project, Scanda and her team brought in a local psychologist to discuss the impact of substance abuse. Using money provided by the mayor, the team bought food for the events they held, which they learned would give them more time to engage with the students who attended. Over the seven-month life of the project, Scanda, says, she and her team reached more than 100 young students with targeted and consistent messaging about the dangers of substance abuse.
“I think it was very successful because we are still in touch with the students we worked with, and they are doing well,” Scanda says. “They are in high school now, most of them.”
Now a third year university student studying Industrial Chemical Engineering in Mexico City, Scanda says she sees the impact of her Jóvenes en Acción experience everywhere in her own life. In 2016, Scanda’s younger sister Karen was accepted to take part in the program, following in her sister’s footsteps to Vermont and beyond. And while she learned much from the experience, Scanda says, the most valuable lesson was one of service to others.
“The program helped many of us improve our schools,” Scanda says. “We learned we could do things that impacted the world.”