Jóvenes en Acción

Stories and photos by David Snyder for World Learning

A Glimpse of Tomorrow
A Future Doctor Shares Her Experience with Jóvenes en Acción

Jóvenes en Acción participant Diana Huerta poses at her former high school, Preparatory Urbana Enrique Cabrera, in Puebla, Mexico. Photo by David Snyder for World Learning.

Measured and soft spoken, confident and poised, Diana Huerta already has the bearing of the doctor she is studying to be. A 2012 graduate of theJóvenes en Acción program, Huerta recalls fondly her time at World Learning’s School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont, and the lessons she learned there.

“In Vermont they gave us workshops on leadership and how to work with youth,” Huerta said. “It was important preparation for us because they gave us skills on leadership and how to work with young people.”

Such lessons are at the heart of the Jóvenes en Acción program — a partnership between the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, the Mexican Ministry of Education, private funders, U.S. community partners, and World Learning. Through Jóvenes en Acción, selected Mexican high school students travel to the U.S. for a four-week educational exchange, starting their stay at the School for International Training to learn basic leadership skills and brush up on their English skills.

From there, the students spend several weeks living with host families in the U.S., a chance to learn more about the culture while also researching service projects they are expected to carry out upon returning home. For Huerta, she and her fellow team members chose the topic of bullying.

“We saw that young people had the wrong idea about love,” Huerta said. “They thought that their boyfriends could treat them like property.”

After two weeks in Chicago, visiting with various non-governmental organizations that dealt with bullying and domestic violence, Huerta and her fellow team members returned to their community in Puebla, Mexico, and sought to share some of their newfound knowledge.

“Back here we started workshops to teach youth about violence because it was a problem here,” Huerta said. “We tried to share with other people that you can make a change in the world, and I think that is necessary today.”

Hosting workshops twice weekly for six months, Huerta and her fellow Jóvenes en Acción team members tested their leadership skills by engaging fellow students in group discussions about bullying and relationships — topics not openly discussed in the community, Huerta said.

“We would role play, share our opinions, and point out differences between our opinions,” Huerta said. “Through that, the participants learned how to recognize and avoid violence in relationships.”

For Huerta, a first time visitor to the U.S., the Jóvenes en Acción program gave her a new perspective on the world. Through her training in Vermont, and her experiences living with two host families, Huerta says the program also gave her a boost in confidence as she returned home to Mexico to carry out her service project.

“I learned about different cultures,” Huerta said, “And the program also taught me that I can be a part of change in the world, and that I can influence another generation.”

In her second year of university now, where she is studying to be a doctor, Huerta looks back on her experience with Jóvenes en Acción with the critical eye of maturity. Earnest and intelligent, thoughtful and considered, Huerta feels the responsibility of using her experience and her education to help others, and says the Jóvenes en Acción program helped change her for the better.

“In my career I will need a lot of leadership skills,” Huerta said. “And this program helped me to grow up.”

Jóvenes en Acción participant Gerardo Alan at his former high school, ENP 6, in Mexico City. Alan conducted anti-violence social campaigns at the school after taking part in the program in 2015. 

An Ivy League Impact
Jóvenes en Acción Participant Plots a New Course of Success

Though it has been just a week since he graduated from high school in Mexico City, Gerardo Alan seems already to have matured beyond his surroundings. Returning to the school to meet a visitor, he is articulate and confident, open minded and insightful — perhaps the perfect representative of the Jóvenes en Acción ideal.

A 2015 participant in the program — a joint partnership between the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, various U.S. partner communities, and World Learning — Alan and his fellow teammates seized every learning opportunity the four-week program presented, from their leadership and language lessons in Vermont to their host family experience in Reno, Nevada.

“In Reno I was surprised by the diversity,” Alan said. “It made me reconfigure my preconceptions about the U.S. It really is a country founded by immigrants.”

Through the program, Alan joined 79 other Mexican high school students on a cultural immersion experience designed to empower the next generation of Mexico’s leaders with the skills they need to thrive. Upon their return to Mexico, Alan and his fellow Jóvenes en Acción participants implemented an array of projects aimed at combatting social problems in their communities and helping build a culture of lawfulness, an essential part of the program.

“We decided to focus on dating violence because we thought that was a more approachable subject for students, and we wanted to focus on students so we could work with our classmates,” Alan said.

After first attempting to educate fellow students through a series of lectures, Alan and his teammates met with frustration. For their first meeting, only five students showed up. So the team quickly regrouped to develop a new strategy.

“We changed our focus and made [our talks] more dynamic,” Alan said. “We did sports and art activities, rather than just lecturing about violence.”

As word of the project began to spread, Alan says, the team quickly developed new approaches to garner the interest of their fellow students.

“We invited speakers, like the mother of one of our teammates who worked as a social counselor, to talk to a couple of classes about violence,” Alan said. “We also brought in a psychologist who spoke on how to spot cases of violence among young people.”

Meeting sometimes weekly to discuss their approach, share information, and plan activities, Alan and his teammates saw the impact of their efforts bear fruit. Soon, Alan says, discussions about dating violence became more open, and he and his team members began receiving congratulatory comments from fellow students on their Facebook page about their work.

“A couple people told us that before this they hadn’t even considered that they were in violent relationship,” Alan said. “People became interested in doing their own projects, so we measured success in that light.”

Looking back on his Jóvenes en Acción experience, Alan says he learned much about his own abilities, and developed a more critical perspective on the world around him. Having received a full scholarship to Rhode Island’s prestigious Brown University, where he plans to major in Gender Studies, Alan says his experience with Jóvenes en Acción directly contributed to his newfound direction in life.

“With this training I acquired the ability to communicate better and get people engaged,” Alan said. “But I also learned that I needed to improve, so that’s why I decided to go and study in the U.S., so I can bring new ideas back home.”
Jóvenes en Acción participant Brenda Vasquez in the old part of Puebla, Mexico. Vasquez is now studying environmental engineering at university after having completed a community project on dropout prevention upon returning from the U.S. 

A Hand Up
High School Student Reaches Out to Keep Others in School

When Brenda Vasquez learned she had been accepted into the Jóvenes en Acción program, there was never a question as to what her focus topic would be.

“In Oaxaca we had a serious problem with education,” Vasquez said. “The teachers are often on strike, because it’s the poorest state in Mexico, so the level of education is very poor.”

As a 2013 Jóvenes en Acción participant, Vasquez traveled to the U.S. as one of several students from her home state in Mexico. Through the program — a partnership between the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, various U.S. communities, and World Learning — Vasquez joined other high school-aged Mexican youth for a four-week service-learning experience, immersing themselves in U.S. culture through host family living and honing their English language skills. Most importantly, the youths took part in a range of leadership trainings aimed at equipping them with the skills they needed to carry out designated service projects upon returning to Mexico.

“We learned many things about leadership and we gained confidence,” Vasquez said. “We learned how to reach agreement with others, which helped us when we started our project here.”

Recognizing the need to keep children in school in her home state of Oaxaca, Vasquez and her fellow Jóvenes en Acción classmates focused their attention on dropout prevention. As high school students, the team of four focused on helping secondary school students stay in school — a challenge in a state with a high population of indigenous people and a poor culture of higher education.

“We started activities like sports and a tutoring program for kids who had problems with subjects like math or grammar,” Vasquez said.

Recruiting five other high school classmates to help, the Jóvenes en Acción graduates conducted activities every weekend for over five months, working regularly with about 30 of their target school’s 300 students. During that time, Vasquez says, she and the other students formed close bonds with the youth they mentored.

“I think that those who participated in our project became more interested in learning, and to be better people,” Vasquez said. “I think we inspired them, and that’s important.”

So close was their bond, Vasquez says, that their work continued long after their service project officially ended. Many of the students they tutored still continue their relationship via Facebook, Vasquez says. And while it can sometimes be challenging to measure the long-term impact of such support, Vasquez says that was not the case for her.

“Many of the students were in their last year of secondary school when I worked with them, so the fact that I saw them the next year in my high school was proof that the program worked,” Vasquez said. “Many still keep in touch.”

Now at university studying environmental engineering, Vasquez looks back on her experience with Jóvenes en Acción fondly. Having studied in Vermont and lived with a host family in Chicago, Vasquez says the experience opened her eyes not only to the broader world, but also to the role she can play in affecting change in her community.

“I think the diversity of thinking I was exposed to helped,” Vasquez said. “Even if you think your issue is small, when you add it together with the other issues in the world, it’s bigger than you. I learned I could make an impact.”

Service to Others
Jóvenes en Acción Helps High Schooler Fight Substance Abuse

Jóvenes en Acción participant Karla Scanda in central Mexico City. Scandal took part in the 2011 program, the first hosted by World Learning, and is now in her third year at university studying industrial chemical engineering. Her younger sister participated in Jóvenes en Acción in the summer of 2016. 

When a teacher first approached her about applying for Jóvenes en Acción, Karla Scanda was not quite sure what to make of the opportunity. The year was 2011, and no students from her home state of Oaxaca, Mexico, had yet participated in the program. But her uncertainty soon turned to excitement, and then resolve, when she learned she could use the experience to fight a growing problem in her community.

“At that time there were many friends of ours who had free time, but instead of using it for something productive, they fell into addiction,” Scanda said.

After being accepted into Jóvenes en Acción, Scanda and four others from Oaxaca joined a group of 67 Mexican high school students traveling to the U.S. for four weeks of service-learning, language studies, and cultural immersion. Through the program — a joint partnership between the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, the Mexican Ministry of Education, various U.S. partner communities, and World Learning — Scanda and her teammates spent a week in Vermont at World Learning’s School for International Training learning leadership skills before traveling to Baltimore. There, they spent two weeks living with a host family, and taking advantage of their time to learn as much as they could about substance abuse.

“Our time in the U.S. was very helpful for us, because it gave us ideas on how to implement our project,” Scanda said. “We met with so many [non-governmental organizations] there to see their approach to substance abuse.”

As a key element of the program, participants return to their communities to implement social service projects. Having decided to focus on the problem of drug addiction, Scanda and her teammates recruited their high school principal, other faculty, and the town mayor to support their agenda. Wanting to reach younger students before they were exposed to drugs, Scanda and her team decided to focus their efforts on students in their own former secondary school.

“We based our project on extracurricular activities for the students, like art and sports” Scanda said. “We would use those times to talk about substance abuse and its consequences.”

Meeting weekly to discuss and plan their activities, Scanda and her team members sought to spread information about the hazards of addiction any way they could. After launching a Facebook page to educate students about the project, Scanda and her team brought in a local psychologist to discuss the impact of substance abuse. Using money provided by the mayor, the team bought food for the events they held, which they learned would give them more time to engage with the students who attended. Over the seven-month life of the project, Scanda, says, she and her team reached more than 100 young students with targeted and consistent messaging about the dangers of substance abuse.

“I think it was very successful because we are still in touch with the students we worked with, and they are doing well,” Scanda said. “They are in high school now, most of them.”

Now a third year university student studying Industrial Chemical Engineering in Mexico City, Scanda says she sees the impact of her Jóvenes en Acción experience everywhere in her own life. In 2016, Scanda’s younger sister Karen was accepted to take part in the program, following in her sister’s footsteps to Vermont and beyond. And while she learned much from the experience, Scanda says, the most valuable lesson was one of service to others.

“The program helped many of us improve our schools,” Scanda said. “We learned we could do things that impacted the world.”

Real Life’
Jóvenes en Acción Experience Builds Confidence in Two Teens

Delia Jimenez (left) and Judith Ballesteros, 2014 Jóvenes en Acción participants, pose at their former high school in Puebla. 

Individually, Judith Ballesteros and Delia Jiminez abound with all the personality you can pack into exuberant teenagers. Put them together, and you have a team of unquenchable energy.

So when they joined a group of 102 Mexican high school students traveling to the U.S. as part of the Jóvenes en Acción program in 2014, it came as no surprise that the two young women would approach a visit to a country neither had ever visited with open minds.

“We saw the U.S. in movies, but we found Vermont very green and beautiful, which was a pleasant surprise,” Jiminez said.

Through the Jóvenes en Acción program —  a joint partnership between the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, the Mexican Ministry of Education, various U.S. partner communities and World Learning — selected students like Ballesteros and Jiminez take part in four weeks of service-learning and cultural immersion in the U.S., with the overall aim being to prepare young leaders to be responsible members of their home communities. Exposed to a range of leadership and language classes at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont, both Ballesteros and Jiminez say they were eager students.

“We learned how to work as a team, and to overcome fears,” Ballesteros said. “We also learned to accept diversity to become leaders.”

After several weeks of living with host families in Baltimore, where both young women visited local non-governmental organizations to learn more about the subject of youth leadership and empowerment, the two returned home to the city of Puebla and made plans to complete the service project component of the program. Having chosen to help empower youth, the pair joined with other Jóvenes en Acción teammates in their school to launch a series of activities aimed at engendering a culture of empowerment and youth leadership among their peers.

“At the beginning we were surprised by the number of people that showed up — like 80 people,” Ballesteros said. “We used activities like leadership work and community service. We gathered clothes for patients at the children’s cancer hospital.”

Yet despite initial enthusiasm for their efforts from their classmates, interest soon began to wane. Undaunted, the team members quickly got together and decided on a new approach.

“We invited professionals in to connect with them,” Jiminez said. “We encouraged others to create clubs, like English Conversation Club, and we gave them a space and helped provide materials.” 

Delia Jimenez (right) and Judith Ballesteros, 2014 Jóvenes en Acción participants, pose in a room at their former high school the two lobbied to have set aside for student activities as part of their social project on empowerment and youth leadership.

First approaching their school leadership, the team members secured permission to use a room at the school for social activities — an exclusive space for students to relax and have open discussions and activities. Once that was done, Ballesteros and Jiminez lobbied the leadership of a local university to provide equipment like chairs, tables, mats, and books for the new space. Today, that space remains a designated student meeting area at the school.

Now attending local universities, where Ballesteros is studying Biotechnology and Jiminez is studying Intercultural Education, both young women agree that the Jóvenes en Acción program shaped them profoundly.

“This program helped me see my environment differently, and it changed the way I thought of myself,” Ballesteros said. “I gained more confidence, and people also see me differently now that I have taken part in this program.”

With leadership development at the core of the Jóvenes en Acción program, participants are exposed to a range of experiences designed to prepare them for the future, lessons Jiminez also took to heart during her time in the program.

“I feel confident in myself. I know I’m not going to pass through my life without having an impact on others,” Jiminez said. “Experience makes you learn more than a book. That’s real life.”

Making an Impact
Jóvenes en Acción Participant Sees His Work Pay Off

Jóvenes en Acción participant Carlos Valesco in Mexico City. Valesco, now a university student studying international relations, took part in the program from his home town of Colima in 2014, and credits it with shaping his choice to work internationally. 

Originally from a small community in the state of Colima, Mexico, Carlos Velasco still seems uncomfortable with the bustle of Mexico City. Sitting in a coffee shop near the university where he now studies, he recalls the revelation that motived him to apply for the Jóvenes en Acción program.

“In my state there are lots of young people who are in relationships, even as young as 11,” Velasco said. “Colima is a very small place, so violence there is more evident. There is a lot of family violence, so the young people in relationships tend to do the same thing.”

Motived to help, and having heard of Jóvenes en Acción through friends, Velasco applied and was accepted for the 2014 program. A partnership between the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, the Mexican Ministry of Education, World Learning, and a range of U.S. community partners, Jóvenes en Acción is designed to expose Mexican high school students to U.S. culture, while instilling in them a sense of leadership and lawfulness. After four weeks in the U.S. taking part in leadership training, living with host families, and visiting organizations that work in their area of social interest, the youth return to Mexico to launch a six-month social service project working with a small team of fellow participants.

“When we came back we started our program in our high school, another high school, and three secondary schools,” Velasco said. “We started by talking with people about dating violence.”

Faced with a deep-seated culture of violence, Velasco and his team at first struggled to make progress. Despite weekly presentations to school groups of often several hours per day, the team felt their message was not resonating. So, they changed tactics.

“We brought in people who had been victims of violence, so people started listening to us. We also brought in psychologists to work with the students,” Velasco said. “We knew from our time in the U.S. that people who are violent often have similar characteristics, so when we saw those characteristics in students, we connected them to the psychologist.”

The change paid immediate dividends. Suddenly, the topic of dating violence, once hidden, became much more publicaly discussed. Among those most affected, Velasco said, were the teens boys with whom they worked.

“I think our work really impacted the community because I saw the change in the guys,” Velasco said. “We can’t measure it in numbers, but we saw the guys become much more involved with the psychologist, so we measured the impact in how they changed their minds about violence.”

Over the course of the project, there were more poignant personal moments as well. After speaking at a school, Velasco said he was approached by a 12-year-old girl who told him she was dating a 28-year-old man. Alarmed, Velasco immediately referred the girl to the psychologist.

“I followed up with that girl later, and she said, ‘Thank you. I have a better relationship with my mother now, and we know that it’s not okay to have that boyfriend,’” Velasco said. “So that felt very good to me.”

Deeply impressed by his experiences living and studying in the U.S. — he has twice returned to visit his host family in Kansas City — Velasco said the Jóvenes en Acción program ultimately guided him to major in international relations, with the hopes of perhaps one day working with the embassy. Soft-spoken and considered, Velasco said his experience with Jóvenes en Acción taught him lessons about himself he may not have otherwise learned at such a young age.

“Leadership was one of the biggest things I learned through the Jóvenes en Acción program,” Velasco said. “Before that, I think I was selfish. But when you live and work so closely with people from all over, you learn confidence.”

Planting Seeds
Jóvenes en Acción Develops Good Citizens in Mexico

Maria Fernanda Chaparro Rodriguez, a 2013 participant in the Jóvenes en Acción program, outside of her apartment in Puebla, Mexico. Rodrigues, now studying international relations at a nearby university, carried out a community project on family integration after participating in the program. 

Seated on a shaded bench outside of the apartment she rents in Puebla, Mexico, Maria Fernanda Chaparro Rodriguez has a quiet confidence that belies her youth. Now in her last year studying international relations at a nearby university, Rodriguez looks back at the summer of 2013 as a formative time in her young life.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to study before the program,” Rodriguez said. “But I met people in this field who really liked what they did, and others at World Learning as well, so I’d really like to be an ambassador one day, to represent the country externally.”

The program she speaks of is  Jóvenes en Acción, a  joint partnership between the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, the Mexican Ministry of Education, various U.S. partner communities and World Learning designed to expose Mexican high school students to U.S. culture and imbue in them a sense of citizenship and lawfulness. Through the program, selected students take part in four weeks of learning, language immersion, and cultural exchange before returning home to carry out service projects aimed at bettering their communities. Once accepted, the first step for participants is to form small teams and agree on a project area.

“We looked for a program focus and decided that the family was the basic unit of society, so that if we could concentrate on that we could help reduce incidences of violence or drug use,” Rodriguez said.

Through the program, the youth then take part in nine days of leadership training at the School of International Training in Vermont — a chance for them to hone their English language skills, discover their leadership talents, and broaden their cultural exposure.

“We learned social and leadership skills, and we learned to communicate,” Rodriguez said. 

Rodriguez and her team members, who spent several weeks with host families in Cleveland, served meals at a local homeless shelter and visited a non-governmental organization specializing in violence against women.

Returning to their home state of Veracruz, Rodriguez and her teammates launched a six month social project on family integration, the final step in the Jóvenes en Acción program.

“At first we worked in our school and had a costume competition for families,” Rodriguez said. “Then we went to the community. In one activity we had family members decorate bags together and make a game like the lottery that they played together. We engaged them.”

Meeting and carrying out activities several times each month, Rodriguez and her team members hoped to create inroads into the local community using family-centered activities like games, dinners, and home visits as a pathway to dialogue about issues of violence and drug abuse. Drawing on their experiences in Vermont, the team also used problem-solving games they had played through the Jóvenes en Acción program, ultimately reaching about 60 families in various communities.

“We used the lessons we learned in the U.S. to communicate with the families and to get them to pay attention to us,” Rodriguez said. “That was helpful.”

In the end, Jóvenes en Acción is designed to prepare the next generation of young leaders for the challenges ahead — an approach that involves classroom and real world experiences both abroad and in their home communities. By exposing participants to different cultures, while at the same time developing their own sense of leadership and confidence, Jóvenes en Acción seeks to plant the seeds of leadership in communities across Mexico.

“The program helped me to grow and mature as a person, and to care about others in the world and in my community,” Rodriguez said. “I really liked working in the community because you could see the faces of those you were helping. From that, I learned to be a good citizen.”

A Measure of Success
Unique Approach to Social Project Draws Attention to School Drop Outs

Jóvenes en Acción participant Mariana Sanchez Cid in central Mexico City. Cid took part in the 2013 program, and is now studying biotechnology engineering at university. 

Community service projects are at the heart of the Jóvenes en Acción program. Through the program —  a joint partnership between the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, the Mexican Ministry of Education, World Learning, and a host of U.S. partner communities — Mexican high school students travel to the U.S. for cultural immersion and a chance to take part in a range of leadership-based activities and lessons. Returning home to Mexico, they turn their experience into action through service activities that address problems in their communities. For Mariana Sanchez Cid, a 2013 Jóvenes en Acción participant, that problem was school drop outs.

“We decided on an education project because we saw a lot of people dropping out,” Cid said. “It was very noticeable, so we decided to try to do something about it.”

Returning home from her four-week Jóvenes en Acción program in the U.S., Cid and several fellow participants from her school planned a series of local events to draw attention to the problem of school drop outs. But after a singing contest failed to draw community interest, the team switched tactics, and began weekly tutoring classes to help struggling students. To further bolster their message, Cid says, the team also brought in outside speakers to discuss topics like youth empowerment, health, and scholarships.

And while these efforts all proved helpful in raising awareness about the problem of school drop outs, Cid says their biggest impact came when they launched a project aimed at addressing teen pregnancy, a leading cause of dropping out for high school girls.

“We started a project where people were given baby ducks they had to treat as children,” Cid said. “It was a creative way to show students the responsibility of being a parent.”

Through the project, Cid and her teammates approached a local farmer and negotiated a purchase of 20 ducklings at a discounted price. Distributing the ducklings to fellow students through an interview process, the students in charge were then to care for the chicks 24 hours a day for six full weeks, arranging for caregivers when they could not physically be with the chicks.

“After the six weeks, the winner was selected by a Facebook vote,” Cid said. “It was really a way to get people engaged.”

Working together for eight to ten hours each week to discuss their projects and plan events, Cid says she and her Jóvenes en Acción teammates coordinated carefully with school officials to carry out their activities. As word of the Jóvenes en Acción program spread, other students approached her asking how they too could apply. In all, it was an experience that taught Cid much about helping others.

“We learned that we could do more than we thought we could do,” Cid said. “It was empowering.”

Now a freshman studying Biotechnology Engineering in Mexico City, Cid reflects fondly on her experience with Jóvenes en Acción, and on the impact she and her team were able to have on the lives of those they worked with in their school.

“In those years that we were there, the dropout rate was a bit lower,” Cid said. “Also there was another generation of Jóvenes en Acción participants, and other people in school started doing projects like ours, so that was a measure of success for us.”

Teaming up for Empowerment
Young Students Take Lessons to Heart

Jóvenes en Acción participants Cassandra Escalante (left) and Amelia Guerrero pose at their former high school, Preparatory Urbana Enrique Cabrera in Puebla, Mexico. 

Fresh faced and energetic, Amelia Guerrero and Kassandra Escalante blend easily with the throng of students around them. And though they have graduated from the Enrique Cabrera Barroso high school in Puebla, Mexico, they are proud to see the legacy they left behind.

“One of the kids we worked with here is now really active in working with kids with cancer,” Guerrero says. “That feels good to see.”

For both young women, it is a legacy that started with an application to the Jóvenes en Acción program. Through the program —  a partnership between the Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, the Mexican Ministry of Education, various U.S. partner communities, and World Learning — Mexican high school students ages 15–18 travel to the U.S. for a four-week educational exchange. While in the U.S., the students are exposed to a range of service-learning activities, each designed not only to promote cross-cultural understanding, but also to prepare them to become responsible members of their home communities. Equipped with those experiences, which include several weeks of living with a host family, the students return home to implement service projects in their communities aimed at developing a culture of lawfulness.

“Before we left [for the U.S.], we started asking around in school and realized people were not engaged,” Guerrero says. “They are bombarded with so many messages from social media, and it’s really easy for people to fall to peer pressure and perhaps to drugs. So we wanted to give them an alternative.”

Armed with that insight, Guerrero teamed with Escalante and two other group members in the program to launch a program of youth leadership and empowerment at their school. After hosting several group sessions to determine how best to engage their fellow students, the team members began hosting a series of themed weekly workshops, using group activities like sports and art classes to engage students in conversations about self-esteem, community engagement, and leadership skills.

“In the U.S., we visited a lot of [non-governmental organizations] to learn what they did with youth in the city, and how they addressed problems, so we could apply those to our project,” Guerrero says.

For both Guerrero and Escalante, the greatest challenge they faced was teaching their fellow students that, though they were young, they were in a position to bring about change. It was a lesson both young women say they learned themselves through their Jóvenes en Acción experience, and one they were eager to pass on.

“We wanted to use our lessons to make a change,” Escalante says. “We became very motivated, and realized we didn’t have to be professionals to bring about that change.”

Now both freshmen at universities in Puebla, Guerrero and Escalante say their experience through Jóvenes en Acción shaped their views not only of themselves, but also of the wider world. For Guerrero, who stayed with a host family in Baltimore, the experience brought insight about the U.S. she thinks will serve her well in the future.

“I liked the fact that we all stayed with different families, because we learned from each other that way,” Guerrero says. “But in the end I learned that we are all just human beings, and they were kind enough to receive a stranger from a different country.”

Empowered and energized by their experience with Jóvenes en Acción, both young women say they are more confident now in their opinions and ideas, and are eager to expose others to the lessons they learned through their experiences.

“I realized how capable we all are of bringing change,” Escalante says. “You have to get out of your comfort zone, and you have to work hard. But you can do it.”

Fighting Abuse
Future Doctor Reaches out Through Jóvenes en Acción

Jóvenes en Acción participant Tamara Ventura poses on a hilltop above Puebla, Mexico. 

Tamara Ventura did not have to look far to see the effect of substance abuse in her community.

“Most of my high school classmates drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes, and many missed classes,” Ventura says. “Of ten classes, many would miss as many as five, so it was a real problem.”

Frustrated by the impact such abuse was having in her community, Ventura found an outlet for her passion through the Jóvenes en Acción program— a partnership between the Department of State’s U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, U.S. community partners, and World Learning. Through the program, Ventura teamed up with four other classmates and traveled to the U.S. for four weeks of service-learning immersion. After taking part in leadership and language classes in Vermont, Ventura spent 12 days living with a host family in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she and her teammates used their time to learn about the broader impact of substance abuse.

“We visited a school that was designated for people with substance abuse issues, and we visited a treatment center and an LGBT center,” Ventura says. “They shared with us their experiences about how they felt.”

Equipped with that knowledge, Ventura and her teammates returned home to Mexico, where they launched a community service project as part of their program commitment. Before leaving for the U.S., Ventura and her team had already agreed that tackling substance abuse would be their area of focus.

“At school we started reading clubs, and tried to share with others how consuming alcohol affected your health,” Ventura says. “We had a dancing club and other gatherings and used the times to learn why people were smoking or using other substances.”

While most Jóvenes en Acción participants conduct their service projects in school, Ventura says she and her four other teammates struggled to gain support for their efforts from school administrators. Undaunted, they sought the help of a local governmental organization that was working in the area of substance abuse, and continued their outreach activities in other schools and in the local community.

“We created activities to show them the effects of using substances,” Ventura says. “At first they didn’t pay much attention, but after three months or so, they started listening, and we started to make a little change in their minds.”

Though tackling such a deep-seated problem was no small task over the nine month scope of the project, Ventura says that measuring the impact of their social project is best done at the personal level.

“I think even if we reached just one person, it was a success,” Ventura says. “If we impacted five or ten people, then we were very successful.”

Now a serious and committed university student who chose summer classes over a three month break to get ahead, Ventura is studying medicine with plans to become a doctor. Describing herself as almost painfully shy before her experience with Jóvenes en Acción, Ventura says her time in the U.S. and her community work upon returning home boosted her self-confidence dramatically — a change others recognized as well.

“I really feel that [Jóvenes en Acción] made me a better leader,” Ventura says. “Now that I am in college, my friends say to me that I am so good at communicating. They come to me to ask my opinion because I have had experiences that they haven’t had.”