Southeast Student’s Transformative Study Abroad Experience in the Dominican Republic

By John Venegas Juarez – Student, YES Prep Southeast 

Picture of John Venegas

“We are now landing at the Santo Domingo Airport,” announced the pilot over the intercom system.  As the plane careened towards the lush green island of Hispaniola, I was eager to step out into the Dominican Republic. Although I had skimmed countless brochures and websites beforehand, I still did not know what to expect because it was my first time traveling abroad.   

Applying for the Study Abroad Program 

While we were getting ready to land, I contemplated how I got to be one of the thirty participants on this trip. I remembered the five essays I had to write and the struggle to convince my parents to even let me apply.

The only reason I found out about the program was thanks to the monthly opportunity newsletters that YES Prep Southeast sends us.  

I was a bit hesitant at first, but upon researching and realizing that it was a fully-funded travel venture, I decided to take a chance. During the application process, the most difficult decision I had to make was selecting the country I wanted to go to. From Brazil to Argentina, there was a diverse selection of countries and their accompanying themes. I selected the Dominican Republic because of its theme of environmental conservation and social entrepreneurship. These two topics interest me because one day I wish to become a leader for social justice, and the best way to do that is by learning more about the issues facing our world. 

Exploring the Dominican Republic 

Even though I was scared, I was ready to discover and experience new things. Once we got off the plane, the humidity hit me. That was new! Dominican weather is nothing like what I’ve experienced here in Texas. After enduring the moist heat and waiting for an hour at customs, my fellow Youth Ambassadors and I were on to our first destination.  

Prior to the trip, my mentors had advised me to be wary of the culture shock that often occurs when traveling abroad. Curiously enough, I never really felt like I was in another country during the first few days of my stay. We visited the U.S embassy, met with local entrepreneurs, and got to know more about Dominican life through workshops taught by our mentors. I felt like my Mexican heritage and knowing Spanish greatly enhanced my ability to connect and communicate.  

My Host Home 

On the third day, we made our way to Los Brazos—a tiny municipality that can barely be found on Google Maps. Noris, my host mother, welcomed me into her home with open arms. We were both excited to learn everything about each other. I learned about her six children, who are all grown with families of their own, and about their careers and accomplishments. Due to how busy they are, she doesn’t see them as often as she’d like. This is why she serves as host. She explained that all her life she has shared everything she has, and she wants to continue doing so.

I will always be grateful for her willingness to share three weeks of her life with me, a stranger.  

Noris shared with me how, as a single mother, she single-handedly supported herself and her children and made a living by setting up her own shop. I also met several other women who were becoming financially independent at a local women-run chocolate factory “Chocolala.” The women shared how they faced backlash from their husbands and the community for working there but thanks to their grit, they are experiencing a lot of success. They are selling in multiple locations across the island. 

Transformative Experience 

The ease I had first felt when I arrived to the Dominican Republic quickly faded once I began living those three weeks with Noris. Adjusting from the American environment of constant activity and responsibilities to a sedentary and relaxed one was eye-opening. In the United States, people sometimes ignore their mental health, family, and community in chase of the American dream. In Los Brazos, you can spend an afternoon on the patio watching the motorcycles zoom by without a care in the world. In the U.S., we make sure to lock our doors whereas in Los Brazos they leave the front door open and people feel so much at home that they’ll walk straight into your house and start a conversation.  

From eating mangu to dancing bachata, my Dominican Republican experience was truly transformative. 

I learned that venturing out of your comfort zone is essential for personal growth. When I stepped back onto American soil, I felt a call to action. As a Youth Ambassador in Los Brazos, I was tasked in identify things that could be improved. Now back home, I realized it is my responsibility to also improve my own community. For that reason, I started a Gender-Sexuality Alliance at my campus and reinstated the Fine Arts Council to support the development of a strong fine arts community at my school.  

Final Thought 

To anybody who wants to study abroad, I recommend that you first do your research. Identify what your interests are because every program is different. Thanks to my participation in this program, I met people and made memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I also learned that sometimes you just need to take a chance, no matter how scary it may seem. Close your eyes and step into the waterfall.  

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About the Author:

John Venegas Juarez is currently in tenth grade at YES Prep Southeast. Venegas is the president of the Fine Arts Council and the Gender-Sexuality Association. Through these clubs, he strives to make his campus a more inclusive and artistic place. Venegas is the son of Mexican immigrants and is the oldest of three children. His sister also attends YES Prep Southeast. As for future plans, Venegas plans on attending a prestigious university, followed by law school. One day, he hopes to be a lawyer that will fight for social justice.


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