US Youth Ambassadors Experience Brazilian Life and Culture

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From left to right: US high school students Gwen Plotner, Jessica Garcia, and El Holzhauer explore street art in Brazil.

by Hannah Nord

Jessica Garcia expected it to be awkward living with a family she did not know in Brazil, but by the end of her three-week homestay in the city of Sorocaba, she had settled comfortably into her new home in the state of São Paulo. She enjoyed long talks with her host family, which served to correct mutually held stereotypes about the US and Brazil. Her host family introduced her to their extended family and closest friends. She spent most of her time sharing stories and laughter around delicious meals. Garcia’s experience embodies the essence of World Learning’s Youth Ambassadors program.

Garcia, who is from Seattle, was one of nine US high school students who returned last month from Brazil for a three-week youth leadership exchange, part of the Youth Ambassadors Program for South America. The program’s goals set, out by the Department of State, are to promote mutual understanding between the United States and Brazil, to prepare young leaders to become responsible and contributing citizens within their communities, to encourage a leadership mentality of the new generation, and to foster relationships among youth from all walks of life.

The program starts with an orientation in Washington, DC, before students split off into smaller groups for their homestays across Brazil. After three-weeks of extensive workshops, school tours, language classes and full cultural immersion, the high school students regroup in Washington, DC, to reflect on their experiences and develop projects that take what they learned back to their own communities.

The orientation included icebreakers and culture shock preparedness workshops, giving them both the tools and support system to fall back on in Brazil. This was key because the program was the first time all nine students traveled outside of the US and many of them had never been further than their hometowns.

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The US Youth Ambassadors to Brazil group.

El Holzhauer, a student from Seattle said, “The United States is incredibly diverse itself, and learning about the people from other parts of my country who I would be traveling with prepared me for meeting Brazilian youth who were even more different from me.” She added that forming relationships with other participants in DC helped her adjust to Brazilian culture because “I had close friends to experience it with.”

In Brazil, students got to know the city through the hospitality of their host families and activities planned by the Youth Ambassadors program. Within a couple of days, they found they were past their homesickness and culture shock thanks to the warmth and friendliness of the Brazilian people.

Students from the Pacific Northwest said Sorocaba reminded them of home. They explored the humid metropolitan jungle, visiting markets, restaurants, parks, touring both public and private schools, and doing community service. Their volunteer work included setting up an English library at a language school, and serving meals to elementary and middle school students. Reflecting on her volunteer experience Garcia said they had an opportunity to talk to students after serving them meals. “I enjoyed speaking with them and hearing about their perspectives on life. I found it amazing how they looked up to us and wanted to be our friends,” she said.

All of the Youth Ambassadors said that they were greeted warmly by everyone they met, often with a customary kiss on the cheek. They reveled in the rich culture, from capoeira to dancing to samba music, joyfully exchanging information about their countries. Holzhauer shared her favorite memory of a visit to a school in Brasilia. “I was talking to two students about music and asked them for recommendations. They started listing American bands, but this wasn’t what I was looking for,” she recalled. “‘No, no,’ I said, ‘Brazilian bands.’ When they heard this, they looked so happy that I wanted to know about their country,” Holzhauer added.

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From left to right: Garcia with her host mother, Andréa Escanhoela, and host sister, Isabella Escanhoela, at Jardim Botânico de Sorocaba Irmãos Villas-Bôas.

Exchanges like this during community service, tours, and homestays encouraged students to experience the Brazil first-hand and helped them learn about the cultural, ethnic and geographic diversity of the country

Garcia described Brazilians “as one of the nicest people in the world.” The exchange helped her broaden her perception of Brazil beyond “a country for soccer or athletes.” She took interest in the different political views and opinions of Brazilians and found the country to be richer and more complex than the media headlines would suggest.

The students were unanimous in identifying their personal interactions and the deep relationships developed on the trip as the most cherished part of their experience. They befriended Brazilian Youth Ambassador Alumni who eagerly introduced them to Brazilian culture and during school visits made friends they still keep in touch with over social media.

The most enduring friendships, however, they forged during the homestay. The Brazilian host families not only shared their homes but also a desire to deepen bonds with the young Americans. Language was not a barrier.

Holzhauer said her host grandmother did her best to get to know her, despite her limited knowledge of English. “We would talk slowly in order to understand each other and piece together conversations,” she recalled. Holzhauer added, “At the end of my stay, she told me that she had come to love me as a granddaughter, something that still warms my heart to think about.”

The three-week exchange program was a life-changing experience for the Youth Ambassadors. The intercultural understanding that came about because of their close contact with Brazilians was one of the valuable benefits of this immersive experience. It opened their eyes, and, in the case of Garcia, who plans to take Portuguese classes a community college in Oregon, even influenced their educational aspirations. Like so many participants before them, their experiences as Youth Ambassadors in Brazil will continue to shape them in the years ahead.

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