Jaclyn Aida’s life changed this past summer at an elementary school in Nicaragua as she helped students with their math workbooks. She speaks only elementary Spanish—four years of high school classes under her belt—but at least the numbers were the same. The Columbia High School senior left for the trip thinking she would learn about Nicaraguan culture, but she returned home from the Global Ties of Alabama youth trip with so much more than just facts about a different land. She came home a newfound desire to help those in need while also learning that happiness has nothing to do with material things.
Even Jaclyn’s mother noticed something was different when her daughter came back home. Sue Aida said she noticed the change immediately. Jaclyn had already been exposed to international travel—she’s half Japanese, and they’ve visited family in Japan before—but never expressed an interest in other international travel before her trip to Nicaragua.
This summer trip, however, was far from a vacation to visit family. Jaclyn was part of the Global Ties Alabama Central American Youth Ambassadors (CAYA), a partnership with Georgetown University and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State which annually sponsors 20 American high school students to visit Washington, DC and two Central American countries. They stayed with host families—most of whom had daughters Jaclyn’s age—and practiced her basic Spanish as she interacted with them.
Jaclyn hasn’t wanted for much in her life. Sue described the family as middle class with two parents who work hard to provide four daughters with safe cars when they turn 16 and half of their college tuition at a four-year university. One of the big changes Sue noticed in Jaclyn was her fiscal responsibility—a big lesson for teens to learn before they head off to college.
“There’s a lot of pollution, and when you look at everything around you, you would think, Oh my goodness, these people are so unfortunate,” Jaclyn said. “But when you actually talk to them and interact, you realize that they couldn’t be happier. It’s a beautiful thing to realize.”
Part Of The Family
The Aida family hosted an exchange student from Bosnia and Herzegovina years ago, but Sue confesses she barely remembers the experience. Shortly before they picked the student up, both Sue and her husband were in a motorcycle accident. They hosted the teen for two weeks, but Sue doubts the experience made an impression on Jaclyn.
Columbia High School is an International Baccalaureate School, meaning they have connections with organizations like Global Ties Alabama that encourage students to go overseas. One of Jaclyn’s friends went on the Central American Youth Ambassadors trip two years ago and encouraged her to apply this year.
Before she went on the trip, Jaclyn said she had some ideas of what would happen. In her mind, she would be more of an observer of the culture instead of someone actively participating. But that sort of thinking doesn’t fly too well in Central America. The second you step into their country, you become an honorary part of their people.
“We thought, We’re just the Americans. We’re not going to fit in here,” Jaclyn said. “That was proven completely wrong. We found people who cared about us, who cried when we left, and it was an amazing thing to experience.”
Initially, Jaclyn avoided speaking Spanish too much because she thought she sounded funny. Eventually, she realized it was the thought that counted, and she relaxed a little bit. They appreciated the gesture, even if her grammar wasn’t perfect. The Nicaraguans and Dominicans took her in as one of their own.
“You’re not just a guest—you’re part of the family,” Jaclyn said.
Student To Teacher
The teens visited schools and day camps in Santo Domingo and Nicaragua, relating with each other over math and recreational activities during their down time—dancing, basketball and other sports. Jaclyn even got to help teach an English class in Managua.
Somewhere during the trip, Jaclyn realized she was teaching them as much as they were teaching her—just in another way. It’s an idea called citizen diplomacy, the thought that Americans can help shape foreign relations just by the way they act when they’re overseas.
“Not only are we receiving a new perspective, we’re giving them an idea of what it’s like for us—how we behave and act and have fun.”
Jaclyn’s college plans changed after that trip. She’s now planning to study Spanish—she’s adamant she’s going back. Still, she learned some things on the Global Ties Alabama trip that she will never be able to get in a college classroom.
“Interacting with the people tells you so much more about the people than hearing about it or looking at it,” Jaclyn said. “You actually have to experience it.”