Editorial note: The following submission comes from The Sabre editor Marguerite Saunders ’19 and discusses her experiences with the U.S. Youth Ambassadors Program.
Bachata, plantains, rivers, roosters, and community. Five words that only begin to describe my experience as a U.S. Youth Ambassador.
This summer I received a full scholarship to spend three weeks in the Dominican Republic as part of the U.S. Youth Ambassadors Program. Sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, it provides full scholarships to high school students for cultural exchange and leadership development programs across Latin America and the Caribbean. The exchange to the Dominican Republic was managed by Georgetown University’s Center for Intercultural Exchange and Development. As a Youth Ambassador, I had the amazing opportunity to experience Dominican culture and share my own by living with a host family, learn more about social entrepreneurship and the environment, meet the Dominican Ambassador to the U.S, and visit the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was living with my host family in the small, rural community of Los Brazos, along the Dominican Republic’s North Coast. When I first learned I would be living in Los Brazos, I eagerly looked it up online only to find that the extent of its online presence was a small dot on Google Maps. This, along with the idea of living with people I had never met, made me a bit uncertain, but by the end of my time with my host family, I didn’t want to leave!
Los Brazos was an amazingly close-knit community filled with mango trees, motorcycles, rivers, and colmados (small convenience shops that mainly sell plantains, supplies, and drinks), which after 10 days began to feel like home. My host family was a very young couple and they were incredibly kind and welcoming. They treated me like a member of their family, even though I didn’t know how to eat a mango Dominican-style, knew very little Dominican slang, spoke Spanish too slowly, and didn’t understand how to wash my hair along the banks of the river.
During the day I taught English at a summer camp with some of the other Youth Ambassadors to Dominican teenagers our age, in addition to serving the community through river cleanups and repainting a local park. In the afternoons, I had fun spending time with Dominican teenagers at the river and local basketball court, and at night I would get to spend more time with my host family. We played parcheesi, listened to Dominican hip-hop and Bruno Mars, and even Snapchatted together when we could. Late at night, we stayed up and my family wanted to discuss and debate things like politics, religion, evolution, the environment, foreign governments, and freedom of speech with me. This was difficult for me, because these definitely aren’t lighthearted topics and it was challenging for me to express everything I wanted to say in Spanish, but through our nightly debates, my family and I both gained an appreciation for our different perspectives.
Some things that took some getting used to for me were hearing merengue, bachata, and modern music being played on speakers from 9 am- 11 pm every day (Sundays included), roosters that crowed before the sun was up, trying to understand the role of women in society, and having to negotiate whenever I wanted to buy something, but my authentic experience living in Los Brazos was incredible. I became more aware of the world, developed a more open-minded perspective, learned not to be as intimidated by challenges, and learned from the wonderful Dominican people and culture.
When I wasn’t in Los Brazos, I got to travel across the country, meeting women who were entrepreneurs in Boca Chica, listening to the experiences of Peace Corps volunteers in Monte Plata, learning about environmentally-sustainable businesses, a women’s cacao coop and education in Puerto Plata and Cabarete with the Dominican Youth Ambassadors, who had just returned from their time in the U.S., and studying recycling infrastructure and water conservation efforts at the National Environmental School for park rangers.
My time in the Dominican Republic had an amazingly meaningful impact on me, and I want to definitely encourage other St. John’s students to seek out similar opportunities. I’m thankful for the support of many of my teachers, including Mrs. O’Laughlin, in encouraging me to pursue this, and I’m grateful to have had this opportunity from the Department of State, Georgetown CIED, and such a kind host family. My experience was a challenging, eye-opening, and fun adventure that helped me grow in ways I didn’t expect.
Toward the end of my time in Los Brazos, my host grandfather told me that often the things we focus on about other people or places are negative. We judge their cultural frameworks, we only pay attention to what the news or a government may tell us, and we don’t make an effort to engage in empathetic dialogue. He said that his family’s intention in hosting me was to show me that good people exist everywhere, no matter what we may hear. My experience in the Dominican Republic helped me realize that we can only understand and respect people if we engage in meaningful dialogue with them, and that we learn the most when we make an effort to simply be friendly, open, and willing to listen.