Thursday, December 22, 2011

Let the YAs'11 Meet Again

One of the greatest things about going on exchange programs to other countries is the possibility of making lifelong friends. People bond easily when traveling, they rely on each other as if they were family. They, in fact, become family. That is the case with the Youth Ambassadors kids.

Every year, the U.S. Embassy sponsors a diplomatic trip to the U.S. to a group of Brazilian high school students interested in strengthening the foreign relations between the Americas. These kids, who come from all over Brazil, spend three weeks together, cooperating in discussions and activities to improve their understanding of their own and the American cultures. During these days together, they develop strong friendships and the certainty they can always count on each other.

Usually on April, the U.S. Embassy hosts a trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to allow Youth Ambassadors of that year to meet again and share their new experiences and new endeavours since their return to Brazil. This year, unfortunately, the Youth Ambassadors 2011 didn’t have their reunion. They were the first group in the history of the Youth Ambassadors Program that couldn’t see one another again.

That -- and I am speaking as a former Youth Ambassador -- is the most frustrating thing. Youth Ambassadors come from humble backgrounds, and flying to other cities to meet their friends is absolutely out of question. Youth Ambassadors count the days til reunion, and are very anxious to be reunited once again. Although we understand the reasons why the U.S. Embassy, which is always so supportive of all of us, couldn’t sponsor their reunion, we’re not going to give their meeting up.

I mentioned the Lumix Panasonic contest before, but I am going to remind you once again, because today is the last day to vote for their photo. The Youth Ambassadors still need your vote to help them go on an all-expense-paid trip to Sao Paulo, sponsored and hosted by Panasonic and MTv. So, vote, vote, and vote. Here’s the link:

And, please, spread the news. There’s Twitter, Facebook, and so many other social networks where you could ask people to vote for the Youth Ambassadors 11’s photo. It means a lot, and you have no idea the good you’re doing.

Thanks! Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Voice of Youth Series -- Danielle Santiago, The Geologist

Danielle Santiago.
Photo taken by Risalat Khan at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah 

Danielle Santiago went to Military School of Recife, joined the U.S. Embassy’s Youth Ambassadors Program and is currently in her junior year at Amherst College, Massachusetts, where she is majoring in geology and mathematics. Feel free to contact her at

#1) How would you describe your personality? Were you always this way? Have you changed? (Why? Why not?)
I am extremely perfectionist and very emotional. I try to pretend I am strong and that people don’t have the power to hurt me, but that is all fake. I’ve always been like that, but now I am more aware of it. I am also very friendly but really like some time by myself.
Living in America has changed me in so many ways. I became more independent, open minded and learned to respect people’s life choices much more than I used to. But it’s not all good. I feel like I’ve became less idealistic. I usually say that my college is a bubble. We live here without knowing much of what is going on in the “outside world,” so I haven’t been exposed to poverty, violence or injustice as much as I used to back home. It just gives us the illusory feeling that everything is alright and we can live our lives without caring too much about those who struggle. I have to constantly fight against that prospect.

#2) What was the most significant moment you've lived? Do you think it contributed to shaping who you are today?
I don’t think I’ve been shaped by any one significant moment. It was a series of struggles I’ve been through with my mother and my brother that have contributed tremendously to shaping my personality. There is not even one moment when I feel sorry for that, though. I think everything happens for a reason.

#3) How would you describe your life as an international student? Was it difficult to move to a different country?
It was difficult to leave home and it has been difficult to live away from home too. I usually say I am a true international student/person. I don’t fit in very well. I still don’t understand some aspects of the “American way of life,” but it doesn’t prevent me from being happy nor is it an obstacle to my success in here. On the bright side, I still encounter people who get excited when I say I am from Brazil and that always makes my day!

#4) How would you describe the community you come from and the one where you now live? What are the differences and similarities between them?
The idea of a community makes much more sense to me in here than it does back home. Jaboatao dos Guararapes is a huge municipality. You know some of your neighbors and that is about it. The living pace is much more frenetic, there is a lot more to worry about. Amherst is a very small and safe town. College and public places blend in nicely. It feels cozy, I like it a lot. The commoners get together and celebrate holidays, festivities, Independence Day, they care about the public property too, so you don’t see trash everywhere, graffiti on the buses, and all that. Although I love my hometown, it is much nicer to live in a smaller city. The thing I miss the most, though, is seeing people’s smiley faces everywhere you go back home.

#5) Do you feel there are things both communities could teach each other? Do you feel you are a mediator of this knowledge?
Most definitely. I strongly believe we have a lot to learn from the American experience, the same way we could help them with some ideas to liven things up too The thing that impress me the most about the place I currently live in, though, is people’s politeness and respect towards one another and the public space. It is an old dream of mine that my people would learn to act the same way, but it can only be conquered with a better education and honest politicians.

#6) Have you had a chance to attend college in Brazil? If so, have you noticed any differences / similarities between the Brazilian and the American “college” way of life?
Yes, I have and they constitute totally different realities. The public universities in Brazil are definitely not even close to be as organized as the American ones. Here, professors will not miss a class; they also don’t act like they have all the power in their hands and thus can do whatever they want. Furthermore, the infrastructure is better and there is a lot more money being invested in the students’ education. However, it feels like we are competing for our lives most of the time. Being in a small, elitist school can drive you crazy. It is definitely not as healthy of an environment as the one I used to live in back in the University of Pernambuco. It was easier to make friends, competition was not so obvious and there was much more collaboration amongst peers.

#7) Why have you picked the career path you now envision? Was it always your dream to do so? What made you more secure about your career plans?
Coming to Amherst has changed my professional career too. I’ve never thought I would want to be a geologist in my life. I always thought I would be a History teacher. I took my first Geology class here and fell in love. I then realized I was back into sciences and, honestly, it felt good Now I want to pursue a career in Geology (not sure which branch of it yet) and am very, very glad I had the chance to get to know the field. Now I feel much more secured about my career plans because there are more opportunities in the area and because I just fell in love with it!

#8) How do you plan to contribute to improving society? In fact, what are the aspects that – in your opinion – need improvement?
That question bugs me every day of my life since I came here. I don’t want to become the selfish person one can turn into by being in such small, secluded and perfectly set place. Although I want to go into the sciences, I want to figure out a way of keeping myself involved with issues like education and environment protection. There is just SO much my country can improve by investing in educating its people. And, in times of such economic progress, people should also keep an eye on the environment. Hopefully, I will have the chance to contribute in both fields.

#9) How would you describe the participation of youth in today's society?
Youth is so powerful. As cliché as it may sound, I do believe we are “the future.” I get very excited when I see friends and young people all over the world fighting for all sorts of things, getting more interested in politics, protesting against corruption, helping those who struggle. We need to get even more educated, eliminate our own prejudices and work on becoming the honest people our country (and the world) needs in order to change. A society is the reflection of its people and their actions. As happy, cheerful and welcoming as we are, there is just no chance of real progress and change if the same vicious people keep in charge of the important decisions in our country. Overall, I guess we are on the right track, but I would like to see more action than plain idealism.

#10) Do you feel the Brazilian youth could teach something to the rest of the world? If you had a chance, then, to speak for them, what message would you leave to the world?
Yes! Somehow I feel that we grow up a lot faster. And we do so for safety reasons. We have to protect ourselves against the odds of living in a society hunted by such high social inequality. There is no certain future if we don’t work hard to reach it. As the strong people that we are, I do believe we have a lot to teach. So, if I had the chance, I would tell the world how hard we are trying to improve as individuals with a common goal: living in a more fair society. I would say how much we struggle to show that Brazil is not only the “Country of Soccer,” but a place where people are lively, caring, and eager to improve. I believe that, that being true, we would become the best place in the world. And only then could we be an inspiration for all of the other nations on Earth.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The [Most] Perfect Gift Ever


I’m back in Madison, after a few days in Mount Horeb at Michael’s parents’ house. Remember that a few days ago I was talking about how I wish I had a calligraphy set and parchment paper? Well, I got none of that, but here’s what’s surprising: I got a journal for Christmas.

I’ll try to better explain: I have a wish list on Amazon, and that list has the many little things I wish I had, including a few Italian leather journals I’ve been courting for about a year. You know -- that is, if you know me well -- that I’m a journal and pen geek. I love journals, I have 23 finished journals and am these days working on my 24th; also, I love pens. I absolutely love and adore pens, particularly fountain pens. But really nice journals and pens aren’t cheap; and, unfortunately, cheap things are the only ones I can afford.

Michael’s brother and sister-in-law didn’t know me well. In fact, they didn’t know me at all. In the past, they probably heard a thing or two about me, but other than that I am a complete stranger. Imagine, then, how surprised I looked when I unwrapped the Christmas gift they gave to me on Saturday. It was an Italian leather journal, and a box of chocolate. Guess what. . . I love chocolate, too!

Surprisingly, also, Michael’s brother said he was actually planning on adding a calligraphy set, or just a quill, to my gift. Yes, I’d have died if I had seen this awesome combo. So, just on the verge of dying, I managed to ask how they came up with the idea of giving me a journal.

“You’re a writer,” Waz said. Waz is Michael’s sister-in-law, and she is particularly good -- actually, she is pretty awesome -- at playing Apples to Apples. My theory, in fact, is that she knows how to read people’s minds with the precision of an expert on soul reading.

I kept thinking: Am I that predictable? Are all writers out there absolutely crazy about journals and pens?

They didn’t know about my attraction to writing supplies, so predictability has to be the answer. They were, though, as surprised as yours truly when I unwrapped my gift. They, of course, hoped I would really like it, but they didn’t know I’d actually worship it. It truly felt as if they’d known me for 23 years. . . Well, whatever system they used, or whatever spell or magic dance they applied to coming up with the most perfect gift ever, I shouldn’t care. It was the most perfect gift, and that’s all that matters. Thank you, John and Waz.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Youth Ambassadors -- A Series of Memories -- #1) When They Called Me

Hello, guys. I hope you're having a great week. I'm still complaining about the lack of sunlight in my life, but today I'll dedicate this blog entry to other topics. Or, rather, to a (singular) different topic: The Youth Ambassadors program. In January, the new YAs will be coming to the U.S. and I often see how nervous they are getting on Facebook, how excited and anxious to know more and more about what awaits them next year.

I decided, then, to write a series of articles dedicated to my Youth Ambassadors memories. I don't know how helpful they are, but I just thought that reading what a former YA went through might help them get a tiny idea of how wonderful this opportunity will be in their lives. Of course, every person experiences this program from their own perspective, but in general all of us seem to be on the same boat when it comes to feeling overwhelmed by the world of possibilities the U.S. Embassy offers.

I hope you'll enjoy my articles, and feel free to contact me if you have any questions, general doubts, comments, words of wisdom, etc. If you don't know me, I'm Rebecca Carvalho, YA '07, from Recife - PE, Brazil. I currently live in Madison, Wisconsin, and last summer I graduated with a B.A in English from Lawrence University. Nice to meet you, and congrats if you're a new YA. If you aren't, I encourage you to apply again next year. If you can't apply due to whatever reasons you might have, there are so many other opportunities -- some of them even offered by the U.S. Embassy -- that I highly recommend you should try. Never give up!


When They Called Me
By Rebecca Carvalho
Youth Ambassador '07, Recife - PE, Brazil

I couldn’t believe the U.S. Embassy was calling me to say I had been chosen to be a Youth Ambassador. I started crying on the phone. I think I momentarily forgot everything I knew about good manners, and simply started sobbing. My mom, poor thing, didn’t know what was going on. She thought I had received awful news, and took the cell phone from me to hear them as well.

There’s a good chance I scared Edvaldo, too, who was calling me in behalf of the embassy. He still jokes about it. He said he didn’t know what to do, and was afraid that my mom could have thought he was upsetting me.

It’s just that he caught me off guard. That day my head was filled with different worries. I ddn’t know whether Federal University of Pernambuco would accept me into their journalism program. I was afraid I wouldn’t be going to college. I was overwhelmed -- Yes, entirely overwhelmed by my future and the possibility of failure. That year, 2006, had been the strangest in my life.

Most of my friends at Military School had been investing on private afternoon lessons. They were avid learners and competitive classmates. Some of them wanted to go to military academies, and the competition to get into one of those schools is even stronger. At very young ages, they were already ruthless mathematicians, they knew literary history by heart, and physics was as easy as if they had been the writers of those laws.

My family, however, didn’t have the means to pay for extra classes. I had never been good at math, and that year I was particularly afraid that what my knowledge wouldn’t be enough to get me into a federal university -- the only place where we could afford, since it is free.

“You don’t need private lessons to succeed,” my mom told me, “you can do this on your own. Your brain is healthy and you’re a determined girl. Fight with what you have.”

I, then, followed her advice. That piece of wisdom is what kept me studying non-stop for an entire year. I dedicated my afternoons to mathematics, chemistry and physics, and read Brazilian and Portuguese literature to relax. Although humanities had always been dear subjects, I knew I couldn’t simply ignore them. I spent Saturdays and Sundays with world and Brazilian history, reading and learning everything my instinct told me was necessary to know.

My routine that year was very strict. I got home from school at 1:00 p.m. and from 2:00 to 5:00 I studied locked in my room. Since I didn’t have a computer, there was nothing that could distract me. It was just me, with an occasional cat sleeping surrounded by piles and more piles of books, and learning. At 5:00, I took a break to eat dinner and spend some time with my family and watch TV. If I didn’t have anything that required more studying -- like an exam, or a presentation -- I simply stayed in the living room watching TV, writing and reading. If I had something that required more preparation, I’d just take an hour break at 5:00 and go back to studying until midnight.

On Fridays, the day I took time to sleep, I’d go straight to my room after lunch, and often slept from 1:00 p.m. non-stop until around 5:00 a.m. the next day. I don’t know what made me sleep so deeply, but perhaps my body was in constant need of recovery. My dreams were often populated by teachers I had never met in real life, who told me what I had to study, who advised me and explained problems I had trouble solving. They were always, always right. One day a teacher in my dream told me: “You need to study modern Brazilian literature more. Focus on that.” I did what he told me. Surprisingly, ‘vestibular’ that year was all about modern literary history. I almost got 100% of my exam right, and to this day I trust the advice of these friends we only know in the world of dreams. And then, on the weekends, I studied from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., stopping only to eat.

So, in 2006, although I was very excited about the possibility of becoming a youth ambassador, there was very little space in my mind to worry about it. When Edvaldo called me that day, I was so distracted I had even forgotten the date the embassy would be announcing the list of new youth ambassadors. I knew, of course, the date was getting closer and closer, because Globo TV and Jornal do Commercio had interviewed me to check how anxious I felt, but I didn’t remember precisely when it would be.
When Edvaldo called me, I could hardly believe they had chosen me.

“This is Edvaldo Amorim, calling from Sao Paulo in behalf of the U.S. Embassy,” he said, and his voice was happy and confident, “have you heard the good news?”

“No, I haven’t,” I said, and was a little bit clueless. My brain, in fact, went blank that day. I could barely make the connection between the U.S. Embassy and the Youth Ambassadors program.

“On, then, let me tell you you’re a youth ambassador.”

And I cried, and cried, and cried a bit more than you think I did. I had focused so much in studying to go to college, that I had barely realized how the Youth Ambassadors program was building up this invisible tension in my head, and the whole thing exploded like fireworks when I got that phone call. It was enchanting.

It was the greatest moment, the happiest moment in my life. I felt so relieved, so free. It was like the universe was telling me my work was worthwhile. It wasn’t just about the Youth Ambassadors; it was about everything in my life. It was about giving my best to accomplish my goals, and trusting that I would be rewarded if I really deserved it. It taught me to be less nervous about vestibular, as well, like I had been when I applied for the second time to be a Youth Ambassador. There was still so much to get done: Vestibular, arrangements for the trip, the trip itself; but, that afternoon, I felt re-energized and more confident that no matter how difficult to achieve them, dreams do come true when you’re ready.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Land of Perpetual Night

Where’s the sun? With the sun setting every day around 4:30 p.m., I feel like I’m living in the land of perpetual night. Have you ever imagined what a world without sunlight would be like? It doesn’t need to be scientifically defined, though. It could be, in fact, a magical world where people live in constant darkness.

I believe candle makers would be the richest people, and candle wax would be the most sought out good in the black market. People with private stocks of candles would burn them in hidden rooms at home, carefully trying to conceal the delicate smell of candle burning inside. In this land where the sun doesn’t touch, people would be very melancholy, and a little grumpy too. Well, we can’t blame them -- feeling cold and constantly exposed to animals and other creatures of the night, indeed, turns the nicest person into the most easily annoyed one.

And they would try to compensate the lack of sunlight with clothing that sparkles even more than cabaret outfits. And “you’re my sunshine,” would certainly be the highest praise someone could hear.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Merry (Early) Christmas And Night Elves

Hi! It's December..! I always freak out when I notice that time is flying. I remember, though, that when I was a kid I used to love this time of the year. My uncles, aunts and cousins would visit us -- I lived with my grandparents, by the way -- and it was always fantastic to see everyone. I'm an only child, so getting to be with my cousins was one of the few opportunities I had as a child, other than hanging out with classmates, to socialize with other kids. Sadly, I haven't seen my family since 2008. I'm looking forward to moving back to Brazil next year, though!

Christmas this year will be early. In fact, it will be next week, since it was the only time available to get everyone together. I'll be staying at Michael's parents' house, and I'll get to meet his siblings. I wish my family got a chance to meet them, too. Michael, though, will meet my folks next year! Carvalho-land is very excited to welcome him to our Brazilianess.

Other than getting ready for Christmas and to move out, there isn't anything extraordinary going on in my life. I'm still getting rejections from literary agents, still writing my stories and publishing articles, and hoping to get a few projects done before 2011 ends. Next year is very promising, I must say, but let's just focus on doing our best in the present.

I'll leave you with some more flash fiction. This is for young children and adults young at heart. Merry (early) Christmas!


Night Elves
By Rebecca Carvalho 
Raphael didn't like when the night came and the moon shone bright behind thin clouds, because when everyone went to bed and the lights were off, and the neighbor's dogs were not barking anymore, Raphael's house went alive with all sorts of little scary noises that kept him paralyzed.

The night when this story starts, Raphael had a nightmare. He dreamed of little elves coming from the woods, sneaking into the house and singing: "We'll catch you soon!" He was almost asleep again when heard a thump in the living room. Raphael curled into a ball as he heard a lion roaring down the corridor. He felt more relieved when he realized it had been just his father snoring and occasionally mumbling in his sleep.

Raphael remembered what his parents had told him when he started learning how to ride his first bicycle:

"Braveness is when you face your fears even though you are scared."

He left his room, and walked to the living room. A little noise by his dad's armchair made Raphael jump back. He looked down, ready to scream, and a pair of bright green eyes stared back at him. He thought: The elves are ready to attack me!

Raphael rushed to turn the lights on. The living room was bright again, and Raphael searched for the source of his bad dreams. But then he laughed. The pair of green eyes were still there, but all this time it had just been the family's cat, its eyes reflecting the moonlight like little flashlights to help it see in the dark.