Padilla shares insights, lessons from Colombian culture
Padilla: 'What we learned from this program will stick with us'
When Cassville High School student Marisa Padilla returned home from a three-week trip to Washington, D.C., and Colombia, South America, on July 29, she was a year older, just turning 16, and a lot wiser, bringing home new knowledge and new aspirations.
Padilla was selected by the U.S. State Department to serve as a youth ambassador to Colombia, South America, in conjunction with the Partners of the Americas program to foster international education and goodwill.
The trip included a week in Washington, D.C., touring monuments and visiting the state department, and two weeks in Colombia.
Padilla shared highlights of her Colombian encounter.
"The best thing about Colombia was the culture and people," she said. "Everyone was so welcoming, loving and hardworking. The trip was the happiest I've ever been because it was such a positive environment.
Due to delays, Padilla didn't arrive in Bogota until after 2 a.m., but their Colombian counterparts were right there waiting.
"They were wrapped in Colombian flags, had gift bags, and one started playing guitar and singing a welcome song. That experience just represented how Colombians are so willing to welcome you into their lives. We got to meet 10 Colombian ambassadors and Venezuelans. I've never connected with people so fast and so deeply. The point was for them to share their culture with us, and ours, with them, and learn from each other."
The parents of her host family she stayed with didn't speak English, but their daughter did.
“The language barrier didn't keep me from connecting with them," Padilla said. "We figured it out. My language skills have definitely improved now, but this is the start of a lifetime journey to become bilingual, and connect with my [Honduran] heritage.The trip reaffirmed how important it is to be bilingual in this day and age.”
Each day, Padilla was taken to various locations to observe Colombian culture. She visited a university, school, and a volunteer community center where she helped plant trees, picked herbs and make pesto sauce for youth to sell.
"We saw monuments, museums, learned about the history of Colombia, then went to the city of Barranquilla," Padilla said. "It was fun walking around the market and learning to buy things in pesos, and about everyday Colombian culture. I was completely immersed in the culture; you had no choice but to learn.”
Padilla also stayed in a youth hostel in Cartagena, where a scene from the 1984 movie, "Romancing the Stone," was filmed.
"It was a beautiful and romantic city," she said.
During the tree planting, a downpour started, but everyone kept working.
"The point was the effort — showing the kids that we cared enough to do this," Padilla said, "and to keep them off the streets. We had a fantastic time. They were so happy just to spend time with us, or help the elderly at the center, and willing to learn.
Colombian culture impressed Padilla.
"Everyone really cared about their city and community, but also had fun," she said. "There is so much [salsa] dancing; it's just such a happy culture. Community is important to Colombians, and family. I think it’s easy to lose sight of connecting with those you love when you have three square meals a day and a paycheck, but Colombians already understood that."
Included in her stops was a visit to a rural school in the Andes mountains.
“Everything they have, they make themselves,” she said. “It’s kind of on a farm boarding school with goats, cows and a garden. It’s a place for orphans or kids whose parents can’t take care of them. We stayed with them overnight, had breakfast and worked in the garden. Meals were really important; you sit down and talk. Everyone I met there was hardworking, positive, happy and loving. These kids are learning much more than just core curriculum. They're learning to work together for everything they have. They’re ready and excited to go to class and work [and get up early] — voluntarily. It’s really refreshing to be in such a positive atmosphere.”
Despite stereotypes about Colombia, such as drug cartels, Padilla said she never felt in danger.
"The whole point of the program is to show that Colombia is not what it's presented to be," Padilla said. "Likewise, we don't like it when there are stereotypes made against Americans. One of our jobs as youth ambassadors is to teach that stereotypes shouldn't be considered unless you have firsthand experience. Our job is just to open peoples' eyes. When you travel somewhere, you see that, regardless of cultures, people are similar and you can find a common ground. I think there would be less stereotypes if people would be open to others’ modes of life. Communication is the only way to come up with positive solutions to problems, form bonds and pass them on to others."
Upon their return, ambassadors are required to start a project in their own communities. Padilla, who is president of the CHS speech and debate team, plans to organize volunteers to serve at a local retirement home.
"We will perform skits for them, listen to their stories and foster communication and community connections," Padilla said. "I'm merging the project with my speech and debate team. I also have ideas of what we can do in the international club."
Padilla says the Colombian experience changed her life.
"The Colombian culture is the most beautiful, diverse culture I've ever experienced," she said. "Before, I never really thought of the continent, but now I have a deep and personal connection with Colombia. The things that we learned from this program will stick with us our entire lives.
Padilla will be encouraging other students to apply for the program.
"I want others to see the impact international travel can have," she said. "This trip affirmed the passion I've always had for exploring new cultures and seeing new ways of life and other peoples' ideas, and to go on with international education."