In this article, Abby Verrando, a California high school student in her junior year, responds to a series of questions about her experience in the AFS Youth Ambassador Sustainability Program and her goals in community service and STEM education.

How did you first hear about AFS and the Youth Ambassador Program?

Abby during her experience abroad in Brazil posing on a street with brightly colored buildings and a Brazilian flag.
Abby during her experience abroad in Brazil!

I found out about AFS through an internet search because I wanted to become more involved in the community and make a difference. I applied to the AFS Youth Ambassador Sustainability Project (YAP), where I learned about the SDGs and how I could plan an effective and sustainable community service project. I am so grateful to have met Audrey Pinchock, Volunteer Engagement Manager at AFS-USA, who runs [the program], because she provided amazing mentorship along the way with the implementation of my project.

What made you want to volunteer?

I wanted to volunteer in my community because I noticed there was an opportunity for change. Usually, young people’s ideas are not taken seriously. However, after participating in the YAP, I felt empowered that my peers and I could make a difference.

What was your project topic and why was/is that important to you?

My project focused on protecting marine life. I have learned that climate change is a worldwide problem affecting marine life [everywhere] and requires international collaboration from people all across the world. In order for everyone to work together against climate change, education is needed. Education fosters a sense of global citizenship and encourages individuals to support international efforts aimed at protecting marine life and addressing climate change on a global scale.

To address this issue, my project will be in partnership with the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, which is a center in my area that works to protect and rehabilitate elephant seals. My project includes designing and creating an educational sign about how climate change is affecting our communities and oceans, specifically the elephant seal. With increased knowledge about climate change’s effects on marine life, individuals and communities are more likely to adopt sustainable practices. In addition, education empowers people to support and engage in marine conservation initiatives. Citizens who understand the significance of marine ecosystems are more likely to advocate for the creation and enforcement of marine protected areas.

Abby during her experience abroad in Brazil with a lighthouse and the ocean in the background.
Abby during her experience abroad in Brazil!

What was the process of planning your project like?

My first step was scheduling a meeting with the center, where I met with marine biologists. We discussed how there is a lack of education in my community surrounding the importance of one’s actions when it comes to protecting our oceans. We decided that creating and designing a sign that would accompany a skeleton of an elephant seal would have the greatest impact when it comes to educating community members. This sign would be at a community museum at the center, a popular place among locals and tourists to see elephant seals. The second component of my project was raising funds for the sign to be manufactured. I applied for and received a grant to cover the costs of the production. As part of the grant, I also met with a mentor bi-weekly to monitor my progress. Currently, I am working with the center to finalize the sign design.

Have you learned any new skills while volunteering with AFS?

While volunteering with AFS, I learned a variety of new skills including communication, planning, and organizational skills. While implementing my project, I had to regularly communicate with the center to ensure that my project was progressing as planned. Through my project, I learned graphic design skills as I collaborated with the center to design the sign about elephant seals! This is definitely a useful skill that can be used toward other community initiatives in the future. I can create graphics and posters to advertise my projects and post them on social media. In addition, I feel that the other skills I learned while volunteering with AFS, including planning and communication, will also be useful in the future! Partaking in a community service project was a great experience! I would definitely recommend the YAP because it teaches high schoolers to use their power in their respective communities to create real change! It empowers and gives youth the skills needed to plan and implement a project to make a difference.

Have you had any travel experiences that have impacted your goals?

This past summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Brazil as a Youth Ambassador representing the United States. This was a great experience because I got to learn more about Brazilian culture and participate in community service activities. One of the highlights of the program was the stay with a host family. My host family in Brazil was so welcoming and friendly! They took me to visit local sites and to try some of the local Brazilian food. Staying with a host family is a truly immersive experience and I got to understand what their day-to-day life looked like.

In addition to the host family experience, I also got to develop mutual respect with the native people by participating in cultural activities. Some of the cultural activities included cooking classes, talking to students at local schools, picking up trash at a beach, touring a religious center, and playing drums at a music center!

Abby with her host family in Brazil in front of a house and tree.
Abby with her host family in Brazil!

What other activities are you involved in at school/in your community?

I am passionate about furthering education for those underrepresented in the STEM field. I believe it is important that underrepresented communities, such as females, continue their passions in the STEM field despite facing challenges along the way. This April, I will be one of 100 high schoolers participating in the Disney Dreamers Academy at Walt Disney World. The program is designed to motivate and inspire dreamers to believe in themselves and their dreams. I hope to take what I learn from the program back home to my community and encourage other young girls to follow their dreams despite the challenges they might face.

Abby with her friends in Brazil!
Abby with her friends in Brazil!

Thank you to Abby for the content of this article! Interested in studying abroad with AFS-USA? Learn more here!