The Pacific Council has partnered with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's office on a new program called the Mayor’s Young Ambassador (MaYA) Initiative with the goal of empowering the next generation of global citizens.
Founded by the Mayor’s Office of International Affairs (MOIA), MaYA engages local community college students who qualify for free tuition under the College Promise program and provides them with an opportunity to travel abroad as representatives of the City of Los Angeles.
Drawing on a strong alumni network and support from partners such as the Pacific Council, students also continue to be engaged in LA’s international community through access to events, professional development programs, and additional travel opportunities.
Since a pilot of the program was launched in August 2018, nearly 100 students have served as Young Ambassadors to Mexico, Egypt, Japan, France, and Vietnam. Along the way, they had opportunities to learn about a new culture, make connections with international peers, and acquire the skills needed to become a successful diplomat in today’s international environment.
"International travel played such a key part of the Mayor’s youth, and also everyone in this office was set on their path from opportunities to travel abroad. But there was a recognition that international travel is not something that’s accessible to everyone."
With the MaYA Alumni Network, Young Ambassadors can continue to hone their diplomatic skills and take advantage of LA’s wealth of global diversity. In this pilot year, two Young Ambassador alumni receive one free year of membership to the Pacific Council, offering them access to events attended by members of the international community, in addition to mentorship and professional development opportunities. Young Ambassadors also have the opportunity to travel abroad again with fully-funded access to the Council’s upcoming Global Delegation to Colombia.
Recognition of the transformational potential of international travel was a key driver in the establishment of the MaYA Initiative, MOIA International Affairs Specialist Naseam Alavi told the Pacific Council in an interview.
“International travel played such a key part of the mayor’s youth, as well as in the lives of everyone in this office,” she said. “But there was a recognition that international travel is not something that’s accessible to everyone. [Pacific Council Director, former U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN, and LA’s Deputy Mayor for International Affairs] Nina Hachigian recognized that it should be a part of every young person’s college experience.”
Although there have been many attempts to pinpoint the benefits of international travel, the unique ways in which we apply what we learn through our travel experiences to our own lives is deeply personal. LA City College student Anthony Amaya Flores said that his travel to Japan as a Young Ambassador changed his view on what impact young people can have on the world.
“There is an experience that has stuck out for me, which convinced me that everyone has the power to change the world,” he said. “At first, I was skeptical of the idea that ‘everyone can change the world,’ but while in Japan, I realized that young people have the power to change the world through social media. MaYA has helped me become more involved in my community, and it has helped me to voice my opinion.”
Griselda Mendoza, another LA City College student who served as a Young Ambassador to Egypt, echoed this sentiment. She counts finding many similarities between herself and Egyptian college students among the most valuable insights gained during the experience.
In addition to deeply impacting the Young Ambassadors, these international trips also strengthen LA’s engagement around the world.
“Traveling to a country different from my own, especially for the first time, can be very intimidating, but it’s all about taking that nervousness and allowing it to open your mind to all the new experiences you’re going to be a part of,” she said. “One aspiration that I saw in some of the other students as well as in myself was wanting to make our parents proud through our hard work and education. Despite having a different lifestyle or religious views, at the end of the day we were all young adults that want to get ahead in life and saw our education as a valuable resource.”
Such experiences, Alavi said, are the biggest indicators of the MaYA Initiative’s success.
“Students are really discovering their own potential on these trips,” she said. “They just learn so much about themselves and they start having the confidence to go after things that may seem slightly out of reach, or slightly out of their wheelhouse. Those are the rewarding moments, when students come back and they’re just changed.”
In addition to deeply impacting the Young Ambassadors, these international trips also strengthen LA’s engagement around the world. The destinations students travel to have strong international ties with Los Angeles. The local consular corps has been very supportive of the MaYA program and will partner in hosting a MaYA delegation in their country.
"When I talk to students on campus, they don’t know what ‘international relations’ is. I want my peers to understand that this program is here to help better our perspectives and create a more positive world."
As an investment in the future diplomats and international specialists, the MaYA Initiative is also sowing the seeds for continued engagement with these countries. Even after students return from their travel, Alavi noted that the Young Ambassadors continue to build their international experience into a potential career path.
“After the Japan trip, I found out at least five students enrolled in Japanese language courses at school,” she said. “We held an event with the State Department and there was so much interest in those career pathways. Sometimes international affairs is not the most accessible field, so we’re attracting a new, broader audience for this career path.”
During their trips, Flores and Mendoza also gained insight into what skills make a good ambassador, citing communication as necessary to lay the foundation for positive relationships.
“Communication skills and respect are essential for an effective ambassador because we must learn to behave and communicate adequately in circumstances where we must show our gratitude and our appreciation of our international friendship,” Flores said. “A good ambassador also takes into consideration the environment in which they inhabit.”
"LA is already diverse—now we must find a way to make sure LA works for everybody who calls it home. We cannot expect for ourselves to have an impact globally if we cannot touch base at home."
Mendoza agreed, adding, “We must be able to observe the world around us in order to understand why it’s so important to be involved globally. A good ambassador is not afraid to speak up in order to get a deeper understanding of a culture or problem.”
A strength of the Alumni Network is the enthusiasm shown by the Young Ambassador alumni, Alavi said. “We’re just feeding into their own momentum. We’re tapping into their desire to keep going with the things they’ve done abroad, whether its service, professional development, or exploring other cultures.”
Considering that the need for international engagement will not dissipate over the next generation, what needs to be done to attract more young people to international affairs? One action, Flores said, is spreading the word about programs like the MaYA Initiative.
The goal is to continue expanding the number of students that MaYA is providing opportunities for, and to help more students get their first passport and ride their first plane. It’s very much a focus that this program lives on beyond the current mayor’s term.
“Now we need to spread the word of how vital international affairs is and how they can impact us negatively and positively, because when I talk to students on campus, they don’t know what ‘international relations’ is," said Flores. "I want my peers to understand that this program is here to help better our perspectives and create a more positive world.”
Inclusivity, Mendoza added, is key to growing LA’s identity as a global city for generations to come. “LA is already diverse—now we must find a way to make sure LA works for everybody who calls it home. We cannot expect for ourselves to have an impact globally if we cannot touch base at home.”
In terms of plans to grow the MaYA Initiative in the coming years, Alavi said that a top priority is to make sure that the program continues even as new administrations move into City Hall.
“The goal is to continue expanding the number of students that MaYA is providing opportunities for, and to help more students get their first passport and ride their first plane. It’s very much a focus that this program lives on beyond the current mayor’s term.”
Nicole Burnett is the Summer 2019 Communications Junior Fellow.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.