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Westview High student shares her experiences as a State Department Youth Ambassador to the Dominican Republic

COURTESY: MAYA BEDGE - Maya Bedge, center, poses at the Houston International Airport with two fellow youth ambassadors before departing for the Dominican Republic.Walking off the plane in Santo Domingo, I could feel the muggy air so humid I could almost touch it. Although I have been studying Spanish at Westview High School,the airport sounded like I had stumbled into the Tower of Babel. But most importantly, I felt the vitality of the environment envelop my body. I knew had landed somewhere very special: "Bienvenidos a la Republica Dominicana!"

As a State Department Youth Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, I landed in Santo Domingo with thirty of my fellow young leaders hailing from across the U.S., ready to experience and learn about a whole new culture. My travels were a uniquely enriching experience, allowing me to establish my cultural understanding of Dominican life, the important role American diplomacy plays in maintaining relations with allies, and the ways lives of Dominicans differ from Beavertonians. Looking back on my trip, these experiences made me realize the importance of exchange programs run by the State Department play in preparing young Americans for effective diplomacy and cultural awareness for the future.

Our first couple of days in the country were spent in Santo Domingo, the culturally vibrant capital of the Dominican Republic. We visited the American Embassy and spoke with Foreign Service officers about the implications of U.S. administration changes on the Embassy's priorities. To our surprise, we learned that despite changes in the presidential Administration, the Embassy's priorities essentially remain the same. Most notably for me however, the Embassy serves as the main conduit for exchanges between the U.S. and the D.R. I learned that in addition to outgoing U.S. Youth Ambassadors, there are Dominican Youth Ambassadors who visit the U.S., further fostering the relationship between our two countries. COURTESY: MAYA BEDGE - Bedge's host brother, Daniel, in the city of Brazos.

The next week and a half were spent in Los Brazos, a small, lower-middle income town in the northern part of the country. There I met Louisa and Domingo Lantigua and their son Dariel, my gracious host family that welcomed me into their home. For the eleven days I spent living with them, I was immersed in their customs, traditions, and my favorite part, the Dominican cuisine.

Similar to the community here in Beaverton, Los Brazos is tight-knit and inclusive. On our way back from teaching at the public school, or watching basketball at the "cancha," or court, we would stop by our neighbors' homes and strike up a conversation. In addition, the culture in the town is focused on dancing and socializing. Almost every night in Los Brazos, my fellow Youth Ambassadors and our host families would meet outside a "colmado," or convenience store, to dance "bachata," a dance form native to the Dominican Republic. While many missteps were made, the Dominicans were always gracious and would help us remedy our offbeat steps or timing mistakes. I discovered that just as I find Beaverton to have a welcoming and open-minded community, the same was true for Los Brazos. COURTESY: MAYA BEDGE - Bedge's family brought her to Cabarete, a beach town known for kite surfing.

As a true Beavertonian, I enjoy trying new food from around the world at our food carts and diverse set of local restaurants. I employed this same open-mindedness when eating new dishes prepared by my host mom, Louisa. Frequently she would prepare "mangu," or seasoned mashed plantains, along with "arroz con frijoles," also known as rice with beans. Every meal would be accompanied by Dominican Coca-Cola, which displays a sharper sweetness than its American counterpart. The diverse Dominican food I tried made me grateful that I could come back to Beaverton and eat these same dishes at the numerous Caribbean restaurants we have.

The culmination of all these experiences, however, led me to this realization: Youth exchanges sponsored by the State Department are critical for one main reason. After experiencing one of these exchanges, I understand the immense way it altered my way of thinking about Dominican and American life, especially for my peers who haven't had the opportunity to travel outside of U.S. before. Developing a young cadre of Americans who are culturally aware, speak Spanish, and can thrive in a completely different environment is critical to the future of American diplomacy. Making these small investments now will pay off later, when there will be many individuals predisposed to serve as ambassadors, diplomats, and serve in the foreign service.

I bring up this point because I fear that these valuable programs will soon be placed in jeopardy by the current administration, which is planning cuts of 80 percent in the 2019 fiscal year to the budget of Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the State Department, the coordinator of these exchanges. I worry that the adults managing our country are not only becoming more isolationist, but are cutting programs that will in turn make the next generation of youth harbor the same isolationist ideas. Though no budgetary action has taken place yet, I will be staying abreast of developments in this State Department funding saga, and I urge you to do the same.

Maya Bedge is a senior at Westview High School and was selected as a 2018 Youth Ambassador to the Dominican Republic with the U.S. State Department. As one of thirty students across the nation selected, she went on a Department of State sponsored trip to the country for three weeks and focused on learning about the Dominican Republic's efforts to promote social entrepreneurship. To learn more about the Youth Ambassador program, visit www.exchanges.state.gov.

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