Dannial Cardillo, a high school junior from Pittsburgh, PA, was selected as a participant for the Youth Ambassadors Program with South America (YAPSA) for the 2015 Summer Exchange to Peru and Bolivia. After returning home, Dannial applied for and was granted a K-L YES Abroad scholarship to study in Thailand. Read below his personal statement about the YAPSA program as well as the work he has gone on to accomplish since participating in the exchange.

Dannial in BoliviaApplying to become a Youth Ambassador was a decision that I thought would never become a reality, yet it changed my life in so many ways that I cannot even begin to describe the impact it had on me. I would never think that I would actually be able to navigate in a totally new environment with such ease, and that has boosted my own self esteem considerably – knowing that I can rely on myself is a really good feeling. I was not surprised about much really, except how developed the cities I visited were, despite the impression that there would be dirt fields around each block and poverty all around – It was an interesting mix and I loved it!

I learned very quickly to take the “bad” moments and transform them into good ones, and I still find myself thinking “It doesn’t matter.” Those moments are the ones I know I will never forget. For example, bringing the wrong work tool back to my host father in Peru without knowing what was wrong was completely embarrassing: not to mention the fact that the only word I knew he said was “trabajo!” It still makes me smile thinking about how worried I was about it!

Building a wall in CohachaWorking with Bolivian teenagers was different from the work in Peru though. We all worked for a common goal to build part of a school wall, despite how small it was, and that really pushed me to find the good in almost any situation. It was an experience that made me realize that, even thousands of miles away, people are people, and even though we are “different,” we are the same. It might sound cliche, but it is true! My experience with CEOLI, a great organization giving education to disabled children, who deserve the same care as anyone else, also added to the good things that are happening around the world.

YAPSA Group at CEOLIThere were still some awe-inspiring moments and especially grand ones as well. Engulfing myself in Machu Picchu was definitely the part of the exchange that I was waiting for. I felt connected to earth and rocks and history, and that still makes me bubble in excitement. There was so much to see and take in that it is worth a week to observe and learn about. I was very interested in learning about the Incas and visiting one of the Seven Wonders of the World was something that I could never replace or want to replace. The ancient architecture and culture was something that just grabbed my attention every time it was mentioned, especially throughout my entire experience. Meeting a Bolivian Anthropologist was certainly a highlight of my experience as well. Looking back, the three weeks was long, but too short. I never had the chance to delve deep below the surface of the distinct cultures I came face to face with. I only saw what rested on top and what flashed in my eyes such as customary food, dance, music, and common gestures. I would have really loved to learn more about Bolivian customs and even regular communication or Peruvian opinions on education. Still, the introduction to the cultures is nothing more than I could have wished for at the time. I now am very interested in learning to become one with the culture of any place around the world. It is very interesting to find how people think and how they act and even what their opinions are about the “west”. I think that is what becoming a Youth Ambassador is all about: learning to understand others and their opinions.

The desire and urge to learn more in depth about other cultures is what mainly persuaded me to apply for another Scholarship known as the K-L YES Abroad scholarship. Of course I never anticipated being 1 of 65 finalists for this State Department scholarship, which sends students to 13 different countries to become exchange students. I was selected to represent the U.S in Thailand, and I plan on fulfilling my role as a youth ambassador to every extent possible. Contrary to applying for the 3 week YAPSA exchange, I knew exactly why I wanted to become a full time exchange student for an academic year. I want to embrace the world and all of its colors, but also dig into it, and understand it. I want to actually live in another country and fully know what it is like to live, on the surface and deeper below. The road to achieving this will be difficult with language barriers and U.S priorities as well, but I am very honored to have received this scholarship. I really hope to have advanced language skills in Thai upon my return to the U.S, but I also want to bring my experiences back to the U.S and share them with my community somehow.

Still, my experience with YAPSA was a main factor in deciding to further expand my international goals and without it, I doubt I would have been given the connections to become a long term exchange student with YES Abroad. I cannot speak highly enough about my experience in South America because it absolutely opened my eyes to the rest of the world.

Dannial playing guitarSomething interesting to note is that both programs have a Call to Action Projects or CAPs. I originally tried to focus on environmental sustainability in my community and build bat houses because the damage done by White Nose Syndrome, an infection inflicting bats, hit Pennsylvania very hard. Despite this, I was unable to do this as easily as I thought it would be and I instead started an Environmental Club at school with some friends. Hopefully by the end of April or early May, with the support of the club, I can organize a bat building workshop and build a few bat houses. I overall just wanted to have environmental awareness circulate throughout the school, and that was my goal. Even though I love the environment very much, my experience with YAPSA has brought me to think about studying Anthropology later on, and who knows how that might change with my upcoming exchange in Thailand! Regardless, my experience with YAPSA transformed me as a person and made me thankful for everything I have and the opportunities that have been given to me.

To anyone thinking about applying to YAPSA, or any exchange in general: Do not hesitate to apply. There is no harm in writing a few essays and having an interview to be awarded an experience you may never receive again. If you do not get accepted, no hard feelings. I was rejected for another scholarship, so it all depends. ( I also had no Spanish experience before departure…and I survived!)

Good luck y muchas gracias!

~Dannial

The Youth Ambassadors Program with South America (YAPSA) is a program of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that is administered by Amizade. 12 students are selected from Western Pennsylvania and Morgantown, West Virginia to participate in this exchange program, which offers a unique opportunity for a diverse group of young people from Bolivia, Peru, and the United States to travel, learn about another culture, develop their leadership skills, and become empowered to make positive changes in their communities.