Summer as a State Department Youth Ambassador

by Will Ungar, Class of 2020

Traveling to Paraguay during the summer after my Junior year shaped me in ways I cannot even describe. Living in a country many people do not know about taught me a lot about community, friendship, family, and culture in a way that has impacted me now that I am home. I was immersed in a culture with a way of life completely different from my own, and I gained a deeper understanding about the people of Paraguay, as well as far more respect for this country. I have also acquired a sense of wanting to engage more in politics and the communities I am a part of to make the world a better place for everyone.

The mystery country

In October of 2018, I received an email from my AP Spanish teacher at Colorado Academy, Mr. Lopez, about an opportunity to travel abroad over the summer to a country of my choice in South America, as part of the U.S. State Department Youth Ambassadors Program. All my expenses would be paid, because the State Department funded the exchange for everyone who was accepted. I decided to apply, so I spent nearly two weeks writing five essays and filling out my application. Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia were among my destination options, but another country really stood out.

At the time, I could locate Paraguay on the map, but other than that, I could not tell you a single thing about the country. That made me curious to learn about this mysterious place and indulge in a culture often missed by outsiders. After a few weeks, I was asked to participate in a FaceTime interview in Spanish, and a few weeks after that, I was accepted into the program. Being selected as one of the 18 in our group, out of more than 2,000 applicants, made me proud of myself for this accomplishment and also excited for the trip.

Will Ungar (back row, right of center, wearing a hat) with his fellow State Department ambassadors and new friends from a high school in Paraguay

Will Ungar (back row, right of center, wearing a hat) with his fellow State Department ambassadors and many new friends from a high school in Paraguay

First impressions

On June 17, 2019, I arrived at the airport, checked my bag, and said good-bye to my mom as I walked into the TSA line and took off for Miami to meet the other members of the group. My expectations about Paraguay were that the people would be unfamiliar with Americans and American culture. However, I was quickly proved wrong, as Paraguay actually has a lot of American influence, such as shopping malls with stores such as Nike and Apple and plenty of fast-food options such as Burger King and McDonalds. Americans may not know a lot about Paraguay, but the people of Paraguay know a lot about the United States.

Upon arriving in Paraguay, I got on the bus with my fellow Youth Ambassadors and we traveled an hour outside the capital of Asunción to a fully self-sustainable school and hotel in the middle of nowhere. At this school, I got to meet plenty of Paraguayan students about my age. They were studying hospitality while getting to run the hotel where we staying as part of their schooling. I learned the basics about Paraguayan culture, such as how to drink Tereré and Mate, I visited and took a tour of Asunción, and I played sports and games with the other people on the trip, as well as the kids attending the school where we were.

Ungar with his host family

Ungar with his host family

My host family

Eventually, I got to meet my host family and fully immerse myself in the culture of Paraguay.

On a trip to a nearby lake and resort area, we talked about cultural differences, and I learned about their way of life. This family, whom I had barely known a week before, had accepted me into their family, treating me like I was their son and brother.

While in Paraguay, one of the biggest cultural differences was the language barrier. Having taken AP Spanish the year before my exchange, I felt very familiar with the language, and this trip gave me a great opportunity to practice my Spanish skills in a real-world setting. I communicated mainly in Spanish with my host family, which at first was very difficult, but gradually, I adapted to the local slang and was able to talk like a typical Paraguayan teenager.

One of my host brothers had gone to Taiwan for university, studied aeronautical engineering, and moved back to Paraguay. He was fluent in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Portuguese. He is 29 now and moving to Canada for a job, so he is learning French. My other host brother was my age, and he wanted to study how to build cars in hopes of starting his own car manufacturing company when he’s older. My host dad was a 3-star general who used to drive the Paraguayan president around.

Another group I grew very close to were the other people on the program. I made 17 new friends, and each person made the experience unique in their own way. Saying goodbye to each one of my new friends, after three-and-a-half whole weeks together, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, as I was just so close to everyone.

Meeting the ambassador

One of the activities our group frequently did was give cultural presentations about the U.S. to various groups of Paraguayan students. We talked about the different regions we came from and shared regional traditions and customs, such as the big country music presence in the South. We learned all about each other’s lives and what living in a completely different part of the country was like. At the same time we were learning about Paraguay, we were learning about different parts of the United States.

Perhaps the most exciting day was when we visited the U.S. Embassy in Asunción. We met the U.S. Ambassador and talked about politics and relations between the U.S. and Paraguay. I have always had a sense of civic engagement, but this very real hands-on experience of being in the embassy was very powerful, making me want to engage more in politics, as well as my own community. I learned about how to make an impact in my own community and how to change the world, one step at a time.

The second part of the program occurred when I got home. I’m now required to create a Community Based Initiative (CBI) or a project to have an impact on my own, local community. I must use my newly acquired skills in leadership, management, and collaboration to have an impact on my own local community, such as Colorado Academy, in a project that benefits people. I feel as if this trip made me independent in a whole new way, so that I have the confidence and ability to pursue topics I am passionate about to change the world.

Anyone wishing to apply for the program can apply here: https://www.worldlearning.org/ program/youth-ambassadors-program.