When I signed up for the program, I had no idea how dramatically it would impact the course of my life. My sister had participated, my mom was encouraging me to volunteer, and I figured that it would look pretty good on my resume. Without thinking too much about it, I decided to trade the Colorado suburbs that I had called home nearly my entire life for the vibrant Caribbean country of the Dominican Republic.
I arrived in Bahoruco, DR after my sophomore year of high school with very few expectations. At the beginning, I was somewhat timid, I lacked confidence, and my Spanish abilities were mediocre at best. And yet, being thrown out of my comfort zone so completely changed me in the best way possible. Over two short months, I accomplished things that I had only imagined other people doing: I successfully organized community meetings, navigated difficult conversations about religion and politics, facilitated the installation of a community-wide water system, and I found myself not only comfortable living with a family so different from my own, but feeling at home.
The Dominican Republic turned out to be a jumping off point from which many more experiences abroad followed. The next summer I returned to AMIGOS, this time in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. No two AMIGOS summers are the same, and so despite carrying the knowledge and skills from the DR with me, I was once again challenged in a very gratifying way, and I was able to become part of a distinct culture and community.
Perhaps one of the most poignant memories I have from my time in the small community of coffee farmers in Nicaragua was when my partners and I met a young man who was passionate about the environment and reforestation. He had a stock of saplings in his orchard that he wanted to disperse to families in the community, so we created a team to do so. Along with a small crowd of youth, we went house to house bringing each family two saplings, each time explaining how to plant and take care of them. No, we weren’t by any means going to fix the deforestation problem in Nicaragua with this effort, but at least we had the opportunity to spread conscious love of nature throughout the community, while working with youth who would potentially be inspired to carry out similar projects of their own in the future.
For me, efforts like the one described above are what makes me appreciate the AMIGOS mission so much— the organization truly values sustainability. It’s not about building something that may fall into disrepair months later but rather engaging in activities through which the most unlikely of friendships emerge, where students and communities form bonds that leave neither group the same thereafter, and where youth from different cultures learn from each other in collaboration on community projects.
There are few things that I value more in this world than learning from those with whom I have very little in common, and realizing that we are all human, and can therefore still connect on a very deep level. AMIGOS was my first taste of experiencing just how invigorating living abroad in an immersive way can be, and it has driven me to continue to expand my horizons and travel the world. I am currently taking a gap year before heading to college, and I have spent most of my time outside of the United States. I traveled through Indonesia for three months, where I was able to draw on my ability to bond with whoever, wherever, despite having quite opposite cultural customs. I backpacked through Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, where I navigated public transport and resolved logistics using the Spanish skills I developed during my two AMIGOS summers. I spent time in Brazil, where my increased confidence and leadership skills have brought me success in internships studying infectious diseases and microcephaly. And finally this past summer, I was a project supervisor for AMIGOS in the Yucatan, Mexico!
There is no doubt in my mind that I would be on a very different trajectory if it weren’t for AMIGOS, and I’m forever grateful for all of the opportunities that have arisen for me from it.