Teen Volunteer Discovers Passion for Latin American Culture

Emily Zislis joined VISIONS Ecuador & Galápagos program in 2013, and the trip sparked a passion for travel and a desire to further understand Latin American cultures and become fluent in Spanish. Here, Emily delves into her VISIONS experience, her awakened curiosity about the world, and the importance of being involved in community projects. Also, see where Emily hopes to be 10 years from now.

What stands out most about this experience?

One of my favorite parts of VISIONS is the huge cross-section of experiences that participants are exposed to. Some of the memories I cherish were performing the challenging, yet gratifying work in the mornings, playing with the school children in the afternoons, going on breathtaking hikes in the lush mountains high in the clouds, pick-up soccer and volleyball games with other local teens, exploring the underwater world of the Galápagos, and, overall, being immersed in a unique culture where I could learn about the Ecuadorian lifestyle while practicing my Spanish-speaking abilities.

What do you think makes VISIONS different?

VISIONS is very different from other travel-abroad programs, because it focuses on making a sustainable impact on the communities in which it works, meanwhile exposing the volunteers to a new culture where they can expand their perspectives on the world.

What kinds of things did you take away from the VISIONS experience?

VISIONS sparked my passion for traveling abroad and for understanding Latin American culture. I gained the confidence to make a social impact in my own community, and I became much more interested in global affairs.

What are you up to now?

I am currently a volunteer with a program that trains and sends youth to Latin American countries to live in host communities in teams of two or three volunteers. This summer I will embark on a 6 week journey. While at home, I volunteer in my own community with YouthRoots, a nonprofit that teaches leadership and social change skills to teens. YouthRoots board members meet with local business executives to fundraise. Then we solicit and review grant applications and award grants to youth-focused organizations in Denver. I am currently also a member of the Executive Committee and a Social Enterprise Committee. As an Executive Committee leader, I help facilitate the completion of a needs-assessment of Denver in addition to assisting in teaching the board how to collaborate on such decisions. In the Social Enterprise Committee, I am piloting a social enterprise with four others; we are going to sell water bottles with pictures drawn by individuals with cognitive disabilities, and a portion of the profit will go towards helping those who suffer from cognitive disabilities.

How do you think your VISIONS experience shaped where you are now?

I believe that VISIONS has impacted who I am by awaking a deep sense of curiosity for the world, sparking my profound interest in the Spanish language and culture, and allowing me to realize the importance of becoming involved in my own community in addition to the ones I have visited in Latin America.

In what ways, big or small, would you like to change the world?

I would like to change the world by connecting with people across the globe from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. Sometimes the biggest change is the one you can’t see, and I believe that people often overlook the value of interpersonal relationships. A large reason why there is so much terrorism and hatred in the world is that many individuals do not understand others who aren’t like themselves. It is important to learn from others, and in the process, we learn more about ourselves. If everyone was educated about the nuances of other cultures besides their own, it would be easier for entire nations to relate to each other, thus developing a stronger sense of global unity. If we can all learn how to accept people regardless of their differences, we can achieve mutual respect, understanding, and ultimate inner-peace.

Are you still in touch with people from your trip? What would you like to say to your VISIONS alumni?

I am still in touch with the amazing people from my Ecuador trip via Facebook. I would like to tell them to keep on doing wonderful things, because every single individual I met on my trip fostered a deep desire for community action and global change. Many of them headed off to college this last year, and I hope that there they may proceed to develop their talents and knowledge of the world.

What do you hope to be doing in 10 years?

I hope to have volunteered with the Peace Corps, to have traveled to as many other Latin American countries as possible, to be completely fluent in Spanish, and to be working in the field of Political Science or International Relations. That said, I am just a teen trying to figure out my place in the world, and as long as I keep my passions in sight, I know I will be able to be a catalyst for social change.

VISIONS in The New York Times