WALNUT CREEK -- The distance from Nicaragua to central Contra Costa County, roughly 3,560 miles, and the 3,900 miles from Ecuador to downtown Walnut Creek, shrank to zero on Jan. 17.
On that day, seven students and one teacher from the Central and South American countries arrived as "ambassadors" in Global Student Embassy's international exchange program. The select group had been chosen for their initiative in leading environmental projects in their home countries.
Embarking on a one-month odyssey living with and visiting Bay Area families and schools, GSE's director of program development and Lafayette native Mallory Bressler guided the young ambassadors in activities at GSE partner schools in Marin, Sonoma and Contra Costa Counties.
Now in its sixth year as a youth leadership and international exchange program, GSE was founded in Sebastopol. Lucas and Jasper Oshun aimed their service-oriented, pro-environment program at cultivating global understanding of threats to marine biology, the environment and sustainable food sources. Immersive intern and service programs for high school and university students travel both directions, allowing American kids to invest their energies in Nicaragua and Ecuador, or to host visitors from those countries.
The program's side benefits -- multilingual capability, cross-cultural awareness, and regular old teenage fun -- were on full display in late January at four Acalanes District high schools.
Indeed, socializing -- while living in local homes, or during the visit's frequent field trips and soil-digging activities -- is paramount to GSE's objectives. "Sharing local culture and providing students the opportunity for international travel opens students' hearts and minds," Bressler said. "The exchange reunites friends, brings new momentum to local projects, and often, is the first time that visiting students have been to another country."
But before concluding that GSE merely flings open America's doors and boasts of its splendors, one learns the program is designed more for listening than for bragging. During their week in the East Bay, the visiting students gave presentations about their countries, Nicaraguan and Ecuadorean culture, and GSE projects. Students in environmental and gardening clubs at Las Lomas, Campolindo, Miramonte and Acalanes high schools worked side-by-side with their visitors, building greenhouses, planting seeds and sharing knowledge about producing healthy, sustainable food. GSE is enjoyable, but it's also hands-on practical, and results in gardens with sturdy irrigation systems and robust harvests designed to meet a community's real nutritional needs.
Gathered during a lunch break in a Spanish classroom at Miramonte High, visiting students spoke through an interpreter of expectations and surprises.
Erick Briones, 16, said he was most surprised by classroom projectors and computers. In Ecuador, they have just a one whiteboard and one marker per classroom.
Juan Villafuerte, a math teacher from the same country, expected America to be all big cities, solitary lives and introverted people.
"I thought no one would speak Spanish, but it is the opposite. People want to help and there are many Latinos here," he said.
Ecuadorean Edgar Hidalgo, 18, found both fortunate and unfortunate similarities. "We have junk food, too, packaged food like Doritos and hamburgers. But (after being in America), I realize there's a larger community of people involved in eating healthy and gardening."
Maria Morales Caballero, a 15-year-old from Nicaragua whose eyes grew as round as walnuts when asked about dreams she has for her project, said her garden already supplies healthy food to students.
"Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, plantains, spinach, jalapeños ... " and "Si, si," she said, responding to whether or not she's a good cook.
Socorro Vivas Herrera, 14, said GSE taught her about chemicals and led her to use organic means to grow her project's corn and beans. Wilbur Medina Pérez, a 16-year-old attuned to fashion, noticed the lack of school uniforms created "groups all mixed together" and an atmosphere far less formal than at his Nicaraguan high school.
Nineteen-year-old Juan Acosta Silva said Nicaragua's people desire learning -- and access to stable, sustainable food production. Although the visiting students valued the opportunity to come to America -- some are considering returning for college -- none wanted to remain indefinitely. Yoseling Viva Poveda, 15, gave GSE effusive praise, but said she and her peers look forward to returning to their homes with newfound awareness and laughter-filled memories.