U.S. Youth Ambassadors Reflect on Exchange to Colombia

Author: 
Ajiri Uzere and Riley Place, 2017 U.S. Youth Ambassadors

This past month, ten high school students from across the U.S. were selected to represent their peers in Colombia based on academic achievements, displayed leadership qualities, and community involvement. They ventured first to Washington, D.C. for a pre-workshop, and then abroad, where they were immersed in a new culture and surroundings. Here, two Youth Ambassadors recount their experiences that forever changed them, and brought them one step closer to becoming global citizens.

The ULTIMATE team

By Ajiri Uzere, 2017 US Youth Ambassador from Arkansas, age 16

YA’s and co-founders Ben Searle and Dai Lin after a game 

It all started with a game of Frisbee with Ultimate Without Borders founder, Ben Searle. Our team is made up of 10 amazingly driven youth with a passion for changing the world. Our team is also made up of swimmers and runners, and basketball, softball, soccer, and tennis players. Ultimate Frisbee linked our drive and skills in perfect harmony and was the glue that first bonded the 2017 U.S. Youth Ambassadors together.

There was something about learning the forehand throw that all the best players mastered, and dodging the Frisbee in the smallest space you could imagine really broke us out of our shells. What really topped off this experience is that the game emphasized practicing respect, honesty and positivity. These three words were written on the back of one Frisbee to remind us that not only should we foster these principles in the game but also in our lives and especially throughout the journey we would begin together while in Colombia.

In some way, learning to catch a Frisbee crocodile style was one of the many life lessons that we were taught on this adventure. We learnt that in the game, and in our lives, it's important to be honest with ourselves. Without referees in ultimate Frisbee, it's the players’ job to know when they break a rule and own up to it, just like it's our job to own up to any mistakes in our lives. We learnt when to stop and reflect inwards and find the most honest truth about ourselves. We learnt to ensure that we stay true to ourselves and the rules we've set for our own lives. Although it wasn't the start of our life journey as individuals, it was the start for us as a team.​

Spelled with an O

By Riley Place, 2017 U.S. Youth Ambassador from Maryland, age 17

Colombia is a truly “bacano” place. Bacano is a word used by Colombians of the Caribbean costal regions to describe something awesome or “cheveré”, as is used in the rest of the country. A friend of mine from Barranquilla taught me this word, and most of the Colombians I met from other parts of the country had never heard it. Many aspects of the Costeño culture in those regions, such as Costeño cheese, slang, and Champeta music, are specific to that region. The cultural variations between different regions of Colombia, as well as the natures of the cultures themselves, are wonders I knew nothing about when I was selected for the program. Most of us had never been to South America, and many of us had never even left the country. Through this experience, we learned so much about Colombia, the world, and ourselves.

Colombia was a sensory explosion. With our eyes, we could see the cities of Bogotá and Barranquilla and their similarities to places in the U.S. In Bogotá, we could see rooms upon rooms of gold in the Museo Del Oro, revealing the great wealth of the ancestral Muisca peoples. In Barranquilla, we viewed the natural gold of some of Colombia’s diverse wildlife, and the perfect blue of the Caribbean Sea. We could smell the aroma of the countless fruits unique to Colombia; fruits such as maracuyá, guanabana, and lulo. We tasted as well; sampling countless new foods, like suero, bocadillo filled pastries and arepas; new sodas like “Kola Roman” and my personal favorite, the shockingly delicious queso y cocoa. We heard Colombia through its music. Salsa, Bachata, Champeta, Balleta, Merengue, and others always seemed to be playing somewhere in Barranquilla. We felt Colombia as well, through the cool mountain climate of Bogotá to the stifling hot, tropical weather of Caribbean Barranquilla.​

I believe that we learned most about Colombia through the extraordinary people we met. Living with host families, we were able to see the city through the eyes of locals. My host siblings, Fabian and Hillary, helped me learn about current events, the best places to visit, and the plight of the destitute Wayuu indigenous tribe in Guajira, Colombia. We learned about the struggles of underprivileged communities as we served in Barranquilla’s Siete de Abril barrio and Cartagena’s Juanfe foundation. We witnessed the issues of modern day Colombia, but also the progress being made by activists like Carlos Vizcaino, our Barranquilla program coordinator and member of the Partners of the Americas chapter. Furthermore, we saw Colombia through the lenses of the Colombian Youth Ambassadors who greeted us the first night we arrived with smiles and song and who openly shared their diverse perspectives their culture.​

I am sure that the other members of my group, whom I now consider my new family, would agree that this 3-week journey has been one of the greatest of our lives. We learned so many skills and are prepared to give back through service projects like, Generation E. We have come to realize how bacano Colombian culture is, something we are driven to share within our home communities. We learned about Colombia’s magical culture, its beautiful, generous people, and most importantly, it is spelled Colombia, not Columbia.​​

Our Youth Ambassadors were featured on NBC Latino, just in time for International Youth Day, check out the story here​.

Go South! Youth Ambassador Program Fosters Ties, Connections to Latin America.​

Special thanks to Patricia Guadalupe who wrote this story and is the aunt of one of our superstar YAs!​ 

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