International exchanges open doors, inspire service in young people

Summar Lyons, Youth Engagement Program Officer

Give a young person the chance to travel, and they’ll likely never be the same. I saw this firsthand in the conversations I had with former Youth Ambassadors (YA) and YouthLead SENA participants in a recent 10-day trip to Colombia focusing on productive work meetings with stakeholders such as the U.S. Embassy, Partners Chapters, Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA), Universidad del Norte and other schools.

At the SENA Headquarters in the capital city of Bogotá, I had the chance to talk with Yury Espinosa, a 2013 YouthLead participant from Cundinamarca, Colombia, who found her voice after traveling to D.C. and Boston, MA for three weeks. Two years after her experience there, she launched a jewelry business and is actively teaching her skills to over 50 women affected by domestic violence and low self-esteem in her community. She openly shares stories about her time abroad to lead and motivate them to find their voices too. Her long-term vision is that the women start their own businesses, allowing them to become more financially independent by doing what they enjoy.

Across town, three 2014 Youth Ambassadors joined us at a meeting with Avianca representatives and YA program coordinators, Jorge Fabian Ruiz and Carolina Cabezas, to propose building a partnership with the airline to provide travel grants for volunteers involved in social change projects around the country. As each Youth Ambassador recounted their own experiences in Deland, FL last October, they took us on the journey with them. They detailed the first nervous moments of receiving their acceptance letters to the moment when they landed in Washington, onward to their host states, and back to their home communities. Along the way, Javier Ardila shared that he learned to be more punctual; Natalia Bernal learned that great leaders exercise creativity and boldness, and Gustavo Avila developed strong bonds with his host family and fellow Youth Ambassadors.

Their energy and nostalgia overwhelmed the room with vibes that undoubtedly convinced Avianca of the profound impact traveling has on changing lives. In four short months upon returning home, not only are these Youth Ambassadors still raving about their time abroad but they are also actively implementing their service projects. Natalia is serving children who lack access to after-school activities in her community while Javier and Gustavo are teaming up to promote the rights of informal sector workers to sell their goods on public buses.In the northern coastal city of Barranquilla, we caught up with 2013 YouthLead SENA participant, Brandon Roca and former Youth Ambassadors, Silvy and Cindy Gomez Rosettes, Camilo Llanos, Joshue Castellanos and Danilo Molina. Like their peers in Bogotá, they radiated the same energy and excitement about their time in the U.S. and about what they’ve been up to since.

Of particular note, Camilo volunteers at PLAYLEE, an English language program for children founded by Silvy and Cindy in 2009. Brandon is leading several successful projects with the SENA National Network of Young Rural Entrepreneurs where he works with rural youth to develop their financial and business management skills. Joshue and Danilo, who became close friends in Fayetteville, AR, just started their first semester at Universidad del Norte, one of Colombia’s top universities. The two remain committed to seeking new travel opportunities, perfecting their English language skills, and are joining the university’s student volunteer groups and the Partners Barranquilla Chapter.

As each further described the countless ways in which their travel experience cultivated their desire to lead and serve others, I couldn’t help but feel ever more fulfilled by my role at Partners. It was inspiring to see the lasting impact of international exchange on this small fraction of 900 PartnersYouth around the hemisphere. All expressed a deep appreciation and contagious enthusiasm for the opportunity to spend a month in the U.S., which in turn boosted their confidence, motivated their desire to learn a second language, created tight friendships, and inspired them to participate in and lead impactful community projects. Hearing about these outcomes during my trip to Colombia not only heightened my excitement for 2015’s programs but also revealed my small but important part in the bigger picture: providing opportunities for youth to emerge as today and tomorrow’s leaders.

Many thanks to the Bogota and Barranquilla Partners Chapters for making this trip possible.