“I want to meet amazing people, eat fruit that makes American fruit taste like cardboard, find that my culture is wrong about a lot of things, and to fall in love with Recife. I am extremely excited to meet my host family and learn loads about Brazilian life!!”
These were the hopes and expectations sixteen-year-old-me had for her first exchange program. I had just been selected by the U.S. Department of State to travel to Brazil as part of the first delegation of Youth Ambassadors to visit this joyful yet complex country.
In just three quick weeks, I grew leaps and bounds as a person and a leader, in ways I didn’t expect. I embarked on the program thinking it would be a clear-cut cultural exchange: a chance to learn about Brazil and teach them a bit about us as well. While of course this goal occurred naturally, I didn’t think a side effect would be me coming out of my shell and experiencing self-confidence for the first time.
Experiencing the way of life of the Brazilian people inspired me to channel their attitude within the facets of my own life. South American warmth and genuine kindness taught me to trust in people, and transformed me from the painfully shy teenager I was into the confident young adult I am today. Their open arms and hearts are the reason I swiftly strike up conversation with bus seatmates and people on the street because youth exchange taught me that everyone has an interesting story to share. Brazil required me to step outside my comfort zone many times, and I carry this spirit to all new experiences. Obviously, being a foreigner in a totally new environment where I didn’t speak the language well forced me to learn to laugh at myself and have a sense of humor in what could have been awkward situations. This mindset influences how I approach situations today, and has allowed me to not to stress about situations others may find uncomfortable.
I loved diving headfirst into Brazilian culture rather than experiencing landmarks and views through the window of a tour bus, surrounded by other Americans. Through study abroad, I learned local slang from my new friends, prepared the best afterschool snackwith my host sister and became a diehard fan of my host brother’s beloved local futbol team, Sport Club do Recife. The lifelong closeness I now feel to Brazil was a result of my participation in youth exchange, and I was hooked on this unique form of immersion.
A year later, I received a scholarship from Qatar Foundation International to explore Qatar for a weeklong exchange with my Arabic class. The following summer, I received another opportunity from the U.S. State Department to travel to Turkey, where I began to study Turkish intensively, through aNational Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarship. After seeing what youth leadership programs abroad did for me, I wanted to make global connections more accessible to my peers. I want other teenagers to be able to access the life-changing opportunities I have had to travel the world as a cultural ambassador. I plan to pursue a career in international youth, academic and professional exchange program administration. One day, I hope to work as a program officer for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administering an exchange program between Muslim and Jewish populations.
This summer I am an International Visitors Program intern for the World Affairs Council in Seattle, where I’ll have the luck to escort Iraqi, Mexican, and Chinese youth leaders on similar programs as I did in Brazil. In September, I will start a junior year abroad in Turkey, where I will intern for the U.S. Embassy in Ankara my first semester and take political science classes taught in Turkish at Istanbul University in the spring. To fund my studies, I received a Di Yerbury International Scholar Award from the NSHSS. I can’t wait to jump into another adventure of study abroad!