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Inner-City Teens Abroad: Breaking Stereotypes

IT was the summer of '92 when Bronx high school student Freddy Godoy went to Badajos, Spain, for six weeks. When he returned from his first adult trip outside the United States, he had changed, becoming more mature. And, the teen noticed, ``my father looked at me in a different way.''

This summer will be a chance for another group of inner-city minority youths to have the same experience as Freddy: to encounter foreign cultures, to learn some independence, and to find out what other people think of Americans. Starting on June 28, most of the youths will have their summer abroad in such places as Europe, Mexico, Australia, or a refugee camp in Thailand.

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The teens will be part of a student-exchange program run by World Learning, Inc., a Brattleboro, Vt., organization founded originally as the US Experiment in International Living. Although the bulk of the 530 students going abroad this summer with the US Experiment will come from middle- to upper-middle-income families, about 90 students will come from families who make less than $50,000 per year.

Altogether, the organization will give 190 students $525,000 in scholarship money which it garnered from donations and foundations. About 30 percent of the teens in the summer program are black, but not all are receiving scholarship aid.

Of the 90 lower-income students, 36 will come from the New York area. They are all part of a program called Prep for Prep, which identifies talented minority students and places them in prep schools and private day schools in New York. World Learning calls these youths ``Outbound Ambassadors.''

For many of the Outbound Ambassadors, this will be their first trip overseas. This is the case for Ricardo Godoy (Freddy's brother), a seventeen-year-old student at Horace Mann school in the Bronx. ``I hope to become more mature, more independent, and learn what's it like to live in another country,'' says Ricardo, who will be going to Italy.

Ricardo and many of the 34 other students participating this year met on June 9 with John Meislin, who manages the Ambassadors program in the field. The program has an ambitious goal, explained Mr. Meislin: ``The purpose is to change the world - so you can see that people can learn to live together.''

Although there is no test afterward to see if the students reach the same conclusion, Meislin tells them they are required to write a short analysis of their experience immediately after they return. Some of those analyses are mailed out to prospective donors to the program.

To give the students an idea of what they can expect (``expect the unexpected''), Meislin gathered together six alums of the program at Trinity School, a private school in New York.

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Vaughn Caldon, a Trinity senior, talked about his stay in Brazil where he was surprised to find racism. While he was living with his family in Rio, the local papers wrote about the street children who were being killed. ``I could really feel for them because they were minority kids like myself,'' said Mr. Caldon.

The experience, however, also had a positive side. Caldon saw how close families are in Brazil. For example, the family he lived with always ate their meals together. ``I stopped taking my own family for granted,'' he explained.

Other teen travelers discovered how the world perceives Americans and New Yorkers. John Bromfield, now at MIT, went to Italy and found that people were concerned that he was from the Bronx. ``When people heard that I was from the Bronx, they were very scared, because they had a picture of violence everywhere,'' he recounted.

The surprise for Saudia Amerudin, a senior at the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, was different. She had traveled to a refugee camp in Thailand where she had to prove she was an American. The refugees expected Americans to have blond hair and blue eyes.

After her first day, she was in tears as a result of the rejection. However, she recounted how she went to the library and found a book on basic English. Included were pictures of people with brown hair and dark skin. She showed the illustration to the refugees. ``It was a constant struggle,'' she said.

Tsu Yu Chen, a Chinese-American who is now a senior at The Chapin School in Manhattan, also found out about stereotypes on her trip to China. Included in her group was a tall young man who had black and Chinese parents. He had shaved his head. ``Whenever people saw him they thought he was Michael Jordan,'' she recalled. ``And they made him play basketball with their local college team, and he was humiliated.''

It is not surprising that the students run into stereotypes, Meislin says. As he pointed out to them, however, ``That's one of the points of the program - you may be breaking stereotypes.''

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