By David Snyder
Fresh faced and energetic, Amelia Guerrero and Kassandra Escalante blend easily with the throng of students around them. And though they have graduated from the Enrique Cabrera Barroso high school in Puebla, Mexico, they are proud to see the legacy they left behind.
“One of the kids we worked with here is now really active in working with kids with cancer,” Guerrero says. “That feels good to see.”
For both young women, it is a legacy that started with an application to the Jóvenes en Acción program. Through the program — a partnership between the Department of State’s U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, U.S. community partners, and World Learning — Mexican high school students ages 15–18 travel to the U.S. for a four-week educational exchange. While in the U.S., the students are exposed to a range of service-learning activities, each designed not only to promote cross-cultural understanding, but also to prepare them to become responsible members of their home communities. Equipped with those experiences, which include several weeks of living with a host family, the students return home to implement service projects in their communities aimed at developing a culture of lawfulness.
“Before we left [for the U.S.], we started asking around in school and realized people were not engaged,” Guerrero says. “They are bombarded with so many messages from social media, and it’s really easy for people to fall to peer pressure and perhaps to drugs. So we wanted to give them an alternative.”
Armed with that insight, Guerrero teamed with Escalante and two other group members in the program to launch a program of youth leadership and empowerment at their school. After hosting several group sessions to determine how best to engage their fellow students, the team members began hosting a series of themed weekly workshops, using group activities like sports and art classes to engage students in conversations about self-esteem, community engagement, and leadership skills.
“In the U.S., we visited a lot of [non-governmental organizations] to learn what they did with youth in the city, and how they addressed problems, so we could apply those to our project,” Guerrero says.
For both Guerrero and Escalante, the greatest challenge they faced was teaching their fellow students that, though they were young, they were in a position to bring about change. It was a lesson both young women say they learned themselves through their Jóvenes en Acción experience, and one they were eager to pass on.
“We wanted to use our lessons to make a change,” Escalante says. “We became very motivated, and realized we didn’t have to be professionals to bring about that change.”
Now both freshmen at universities in Puebla, Guerrero and Escalante say their experience through Jóvenes en Acción shaped their views not only of themselves, but also of the wider world. For Guerrero, who stayed with a host family in Baltimore, the experience brought insight about the U.S. she thinks will serve her well in the future.
“I liked the fact that we all stayed with different families, because we learned from each other that way,” Guerrero says. “But in the end I learned that we are all just human beings, and they were kind enough to receive a stranger from a different country.”
Empowered and energized by their experience with Jóvenes en Acción, both young women say they are more confident now in their opinions and ideas, and are eager to expose others to the lessons they learned through their experiences.
“I realized how capable we all are of bringing change,” Escalante says. “You have to get out of your comfort zone, and you have to work hard. But you can do it.”