In mid-January, I had the privilege of designing and implementing a two-week exchange program in Seattle for a group of 2016 Youth Ambassadors from Brazil. The Brazil Youth Ambassador Program (BYAP) is a joint-funded program by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Brazil which brings youth leaders and adult mentors from across Brazil to the United States for three weeks to focus on leadership development, social justice, and service-learning. Since its inception in 2002, Washington, D.C.-based NGO World Learning has administered the Brazil Youth Ambassador Program. Students spend the first week of the program in the nation’s capitol participating in trainings, acclimating to the new culture, and preparing for the next two weeks with their host families in their host communities.
As is always the case, this year’s Brazil Youth Ambassador Program was highly competitive: more than 14,000 applications were received for a total of 50 slots. As you can imagine, these students are bright, motivated, and committed to bettering themselves and their communities through intercultural exchange. After their first week in D.C., the 50 Youth Ambassadors were split into groups to travel to four different host communities: Portland, OR; Pensacola, FL; Tulsa, OK; and Seattle, WA.
In the weeks leading up to the students’ arrival in Seattle, I recruited and vetted homestay families, designed the program curriculum, coordinated all program logistics, and set up service activities, social justice-focused workshops, and cultural activities. As I did all of the legwork for the program, I wondered the same things I wonder every time I plan a new program: are the days full enough but not too full? Is there adequate time to debrief? Is the the curriculum designed to meet the program’s goals and objectives? As an experiential educator, I know how critical it is to research and prepare, yet I also know that the real magic of the program often happens during moments you can’t possibly plan for: a random conversation about racism in America on a city bus, the spark of a new idea for a service project back home as the result of the programmed service activities, or a spontaneous dance party during a visit to a local high school class.
During the course of the program, my students experienced Seattle in a way that people who have lived here all of their lives are never able to. They met with the Washington Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, did a VIP tour of Boeing, volunteered at the Cherry Street Food Bank, participated in Garfield High School’s MLK Day Rally and Parade, shadowed high school students at two very different public schools, participated in a social media workshop with PugetSoundOff.org, and discussed issues facing young people with the EMP Museum’s Youth Advisory Board. They were made to feel like family in the homes of their host families and openly welcomed by the larger Seattle community. For a city known for its “freeze,” I can say with confidence that my students’ curiosity, wonder, and enthusiasm invited the warmth that lies below Seattle’s sometimes cold exterior.
Most of my previous global education experience has been leading programs for American students in different parts of the world. This time, I had the unique opportunity of witnessing my own community through the eyes of my students. I was reminded daily of how many little things I take for granted here: flushing toilets, endless food options, access to educational materials through libraries, and readily available clean drinking water, just to name a few.
In chatting with one of my students during one of our many rides in a 16-passenger bus, I learned that her daily commute to school involves a two-hour crowded bus ride each way. She wakes up every morning at 4:30 am and heads to school, where she voluntarily tutors her peers in English, spends all day in class, and then participates in a wide range of extracurricular after-school activities to build her skill set and increase her chances of getting into a good university. She usually returns home around midnight, only to sleep for a mere 4 hours before doing it all again. This is not an atypical experience for many students in the developing world, yet I’m struck by these stories of grit and persistence every time I hear them. They give me a fresh perspective on my own life and a greater empathy for how varied the human experience is around the globe, and this is exactly why I believe global education is so important: to broaden our own worldview and foster a deeper understanding of ourselves and others as members of an interconnected global community.