U.S. Youth Ambassadors on the Power of Human Connection

Jennah Haque and Shristi Bashista, U.S. Youth Ambassadors

Earleir this year, 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. This past July, the ten students ventured first to Washington, D.C. for a pre-workshop, and then abroad, where they were immersed in a new culture and surroundings. Below, two Youth Ambassadors recount their experiences that forever changed them, and brought them one step closer to becoming global citizens.

Part 1: Washington, D.C.
By: Jennah Haque

This summer, I had the wonderful opportunity of becoming a 2016 Youth Ambassador with Partners of the Americas. I travelled alongside nine other incredible teens to Colombia for three weeks to learn about civic engagement, volunteerism, cultural awareness, and leadership.

The program, implemented by Partners of the Americas, and co-sponsored by the US Embassy in Colombia and the U.S. State Department, hands-down changed my life forever. And this beautiful journey started in Washington D.C. so we could reflect on our own roots and narratives before opening up to another vastly different culture.

In addition to the classic D.C tourist trips to the Capitol, the White House, and the highly-relished monuments (Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, MLK, and Vietnam memorial), I partook in a lot of meaningful conversations about what it means to lead, the importance of galvanizing youth, and what today’s broadened political spectrum will yield for future generations.

I remember Heartbeat founder Aaron Shneyer’s thoughts on what causes conflict captivating me. Heartbeat uses music as a means to bring together Israeli and Palestinian youth to transform conflict. I remember all the round table discussions in the Partners Conference Room on adolescents’ malleability in their views and their enthusiasm for helping others. And I remember sitting on the steps of the Supreme Court building talking about how single-word labels like liberal or conservative and Democrat or Republican can’t even begin to encompass all of one’s beliefs and values.

I left D.C and every single workshop with a newfound open mind and hope for a brighter tomorrow, the perfect mentality to start my adventures in Colombia!

And the journey continues…

Part 2: Colombia
By: Shristi Bashista

There’s something almost magical about landing in a foreign country. Moments before, you were standing on familiar land, surrounded by a familiar tongue, and dealing with familiar customs. But now, you stand in a forest of unknown—a beautiful forest, but it’s a forest that instills in a certain wonder, nervousness, and excitement you have yet to fully understand how to navigate.

We were sent to Colombia as a part of intercultural hands-on exchange that focused specifically on leadership and volunteer service, and throughout our journey, we had the opportunities to interact with the youth, the adults, and the nature of Colombia.

I learned about the Youth Ambassador program through my Spanish teacher. I applied because I wanted the opportunity to improve my leadership skills, to become a better volunteer, and to explore different languages and cultures. The program also would help me to reach my goal of becoming a global citizen who is able to help others with whatever she does.

Travelling to new terrain isn’t exactly an unknown experience for me. I’ve been to Nepal before, as well as Canada. There’s something gorgeously startling about every place that I’ve been to: the people, the emotions and hopes and dreams that they all have, are all so very similar. I expected this realization to be true when I went to Colombia, and it was. I’m willing to bet that no matter where I go, no matter with whom I speak, the conversations will be similar. It’s one of the most beautiful things about living - being able to relate, to connect with each other.

This connection is something that can be found everywhere in Colombia. I wasn’t expecting so much of it, but it was there, and it was astonishing. Colombia’s people are so warm, so welcoming, and so full of dance and music. Whether I was sitting at home with my host family in Barranquilla, or listening to the amazing work of various service leaders, or we were helping paint pictures of dignity in room full of smiling kids, the warmth of human connection filled each and every room. It was there when we Youth Ambassadors stepped off the plane in Bogota and the Colombian Youth Ambassadors welcomed us by dancing and singing in the middle the airport, surrounded by amused onlookers and laughter.

The trip has taught me, among other things, that caring about others, the sheer act of smiling and engaging, even if you don’t speak the same language or are from different cultures, can connect you with beautiful relationships that will support not only yourself, but the people around you. I want to help spread care between people with my follow-on service project, actually. I want to work with empathy, and I encourage everyone to stand in a new forest and see these similarities for him or herself if given the opportunity.