17-Year-Old Gains Leadership Skills and Second Family through Youth Ambassadors Program

Emily Arnim, Partners Intern

Joandriz Gonzalez, 17, traveled from her hometown of Caracas, Venezuela to the United States last fall. She was a participant in Partners’ State Department and U.S. Embassy-sponsored Youth Ambassadors (YA) program, which gives high schoolers the opportunity to travel internationally, build and improve leadership skills and develop a commitment to service.

Gonzalez, along with 19 other YA’s from Colombia and Venezuela, began her experience in Washington, D.C.

The group visited the Department of State and learned about the U.S.’ relationship with Colombia and Venezuela. Gonzalez was inspired by Arkansas Senator John Boozman’s perspective on youth participation in diplomacy.

“He explained to me the value that youth have, which is something I will never forget,” Gonzalez said. “I think of the senator as a man who looks to make collective improvements to his birth place, Arkansas.”

Gonzalez and her fellow YA’s also met with leaders from organizations that involve youth in addressing community challenges, including Youth Service America and City Year.

Youth Service America encourages youth to commit themselves to service through campaigns including Global Youth Service Day and Semester of Serve. It also provides grants and training for youth to implement service projects.

“There are many opportunities to take action and implement projects to solve community issues,” Gonzalez said when describing what she learned at Youth Service America.

The group also attended a peacebuilding workshop hosted by Aaron Shneyer, the founder of Heartbeat, a space for Palestinian and Israeli youth to commune through music and dialogue.

After orientation week in Washington, D.C., Gonzalez spent three weeks in Bentonville and Fayetteville, Arkansas, along with five fellow Venezuelans, five Colombians, and two mentors. There, they connected with nature at the Ozark National Science Center and the Beaver Water District. “During these amazing outdoor adventures, we made observations and conducted experiments and were able to learn how water is processed to provide Northwest Arkansas with [a] high quality of drinking water,” Gonzalez said. 

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was especially meaningful to Gonzalez, since one of her personal interests is drawing. “It was an amazing opportunity to see collections of hundreds of works made by American artists from the colonial period to the present,” Gonzalez said.

Finally, a peace building workshop with Latin musician and motivational speaker Al “Papa Rap” Lopez taught Gonzalez and the other YA’s that communication and respect are the bases of mutual understanding.

Gonzalez’s fondest memories of Arkansas are of her host family. “The Shefchiks taught me the importance of family togetherness,” Gonzalez said. “Not only did they allow me to stay in their house, but they also opened their hearts to me and gave me love. Because of them, I can say that we don’t have to share blood to be family.”

Gonzalez became especially close with her host sister, Mikayla. “She shared important things with me, from simple details, like her favorite movie, to her friendships and moments that we both are going to remember forever.”

The YA program was a life-changing experience for Gonzalez, and she is grateful to Partners and the United States Embassy for selecting her. She now feels more comfortable sharing her ideas with others, even in another language.

Empowered by her experiences and leadership skills, Gonzalez plans to create a youth program in her community that will recover green areas and recycle materials. 

“I will help youth find a voice just as the founder of Heartbeat helped me to find my own voice,” Gonzalez said. “Improving lives and the environment not only makes me happy, but also helps me become a better person. From now on, I will remember a quote that I learned from the [peacebuilding workshop in D.C.]: Be big, start small.”