At Age 15, My Life Has Changed Forever

Juan Felipe Mejia Zapata, Colombia Youth Ambassador; Edited by Mary Henkin

When applying to Partners’ Youth Ambassadors (YA) program, I never thought I would be selected. I had heard it was a really competitive program with over 400 high school students applying every year from across the country. My lack of confidence led me to think that I wasn't good enough for the program. Fortunately, all of my teachers at Access encouraged me to apply. So, I filled out the application form, and I did my best in the interview.

I had first heard about Youth Ambassadors through the English Access Scholarship Program, which provides a foundation of English language skills to talented youth from economically disadvantaged sectors through after-school classes and intensive sessions. During the YA program, youth spend three weeks abroad engaging with local government and civic organizations, building relationships with host families and other youth, visiting schools and participating in skills-based workshops that enable and empower them to mobilize their communities towards positive change. The YA program is funded by the U.S. Department of State.

I remember being so nervous because the YA program was my opportunity to make my dream of traveling to the United States come true. I'd been dreaming about that since I was 9 years old. It was then that I also became interested in learning a new language. But what I looked forward to most of being a YA was traveling with the purpose of volunteering and helping others. This was my chance to represent my city, state, and my country in a foreign land.

When I got the news of my acceptance, I was in my English class at Colombo Americano, my local Binational Center. My parents were there, and they cried and congratulated me after hearing the news. I was speechless, and wasn't sure how to discern my emotions. I didn't know it was possible to feel happy, blessed, surprised, shocked, and even confused all at the same time. But those emotions made me feel like it was probably one of the best days of my life.

Then my trip began.

The experience was unbelievable; I felt like I was in a dream I was about to be woken up from the entire time. The month that I spent in both Washington, D.C. and Johnson City, Tenn. was awesome and life-changing. All the places we visited were beautiful, and all the people we met were kind, friendly and unforgettable.

Our experiences were challenging, but they made us stronger. I learned the history of the United States, Tennessee and Johnson City; I learned about America and its people – how they really are, not the stereotypes that surround them. I learned about the daily life of this foreign country, as well as the differences and similarities of our two countries; I gladly discovered that Colombia and the United States are not as different as they seem.

The most important things I learned during this trip were about myself. I discovered a new person in me, and I see the world in a new way.

At the end of the trip, I was so sad because I felt like I needed more time with the people I had built relationships with. At the same time, the Colombia YA’s and myself had created a follow-on service project to implement in our individual schools starting in early 2017. We are currently recruiting members and planning for our project, which will reduce the discriminatory practices in the schools of Youth Ambassadors, and help kids and teenagers to freely express their personalities, beliefs, oddities and orientations. We want to prevent youth from fear of judgment and bullying because of who they are as human beings.

I returned to Colombia a different person, and I held on to all the things I learned during my trip. The YA program helped me in many ways, and I am so thankful for this opportunity. Thank you for believing in me, a 15-year-old teenager who wanted a chance to make his dreams come true, and who now wants to help people by giving them a chance to be happy just the way they are.