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Howdy, Botswana! Dumelang, Texas!

Submitted by Mariana Berenguer, Volunteer and CIEE Intern


Once a month, Saturdays at the Botswana-Baylor Children’s Clinical Centre of Excellence are not at all their usual calm and quiet. Dozens and sometimes hundreds of active adolescents come together as the Teen Club to discuss their lives, play games, get to know one another better and receive various life skill trainings. As one of the most successful programs at Baylor, Teen Club engages in a number of different activities to keep its youth engaged and learning.

Across the world in Houston, Texas a collection of passionate adolescents comes together at a more regular basis at the Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions. Students who want to dedicate their lives to medicine and other health related fields study there and their interest is piqued by health related issues all over the globe.

In what turned out to be a truly interesting and meaningful partnership, these teens in Botswana and the United States came together to start a pen pal project that was meant to put them into contact with one another and spark an interest in each other’s lives. The Americans wrote their letters first, producing all kinds of creative mail with drawings and diagrams and websites to check out (and plenty of free advertisement for Taylor Swift, Usher and One Direction). After making their way across the ocean and all the way to Baylor the Batswana read their letters at Teen Club and then wrote back in equally creative fashion, with more art, music recommendations and prayers. The youth were encouraged to share their contact information with each other so that after the initial exchange they could continue their interaction over more practical media such as Facebook or e-mail. Some students even provided addresses to their homes with invitations to visit in Gaborone or Houston.

The letters are touching examples of how powerful a project like this can be. The teens shared details about their daily lives, their struggles and challenges, their dreams and aspirations and many more things. Reading through them one gets the overwhelming sensation of open minded people who despite living very different lives have a lot in common and want to get to know each other. Picking what to highlight among these letters is a challenge. There is so much that is worth mentioning. Yet there are two prevailing themes that come up time and again and that sum up the spirit of the letters, so following are three posts, each about a certain topic or sentiment that these letters expressed and that tells us a lot about what each group does and what they hope to do.


Stay strong

In the first letters that were sent, one of the most common themes was a message of hope and strength. From Houston, students were sending their love and support to their peers halfway across the world who have the added challenge of living with HIV on top of that of being a teenager with everything that entails. “Don’t ever give up and stay strong,” wrote a 17 year old Texan girl. Another of the Americans, a 17 year old male, reassures his pen pal that “those internal struggles you feel will eventually become the past.” It was repeated many times in many different ways. It is admirable how much vigor they poured into their letters, clearly wanting to provide support for the Batswana.

And the Batswana happily received this sentiment. “Thank you very much for your words of encouragement and I promise to stay strong in whatever I do in my life. Though there are obstacles in my life I believe they are a stepping stone to go higher,” replied a young woman from Botswana. Clearly grateful for the support from her new friend she explained what many of the other HIV positive youth were saying in many ways: that they will continue to be strong and deal with the hand they have been dealt but in doing so will strive to do even better than they otherwise would. It is inspiring to see how these adolescents own their challenges and make the best out of their difficult situations.

 The words of strength did not flow just one way, however. Many of the students in Texas expressed in their letters some of the challenges they were dealing with. Although HIV might sound scarier and be better known as a challenge these teens were facing problems that were presenting challenges the youth in Botswana considered just as difficult and important. And in response they sent their love and support, encouraging their counterparts to step up to their fears and frustrations and deal with them with strength and determination. They suggested problem solving techniques and sent wished of good luck.

The pen pal project successfully created a cross-continental support network that provided students in both countries with hope and strength. Both groups felt the love from the other side and hopefully used this to face their problems and, as many letters said, stay strong in the face of a challenge.


I want to help others

As a group, these students are truly inspiring. They all have their challenges with their health or at home or at school, and yet usually one of the first things they mention in the letters is that they want to help others in the future.

The Batswana were eager to talk about their dreams for the future. With hopes for the future that ranged from engineers to teachers to doctors there were plenty of different occupations mentioned in their letters. The thread all these disparate aspirations had in common was that most of them stemmed from one thing: a real wish to help others. A teenage boy in Gaborone told his pen pal that his “plan for the future is to be a medical doctor, helping the sick ones.” Being a doctor is a great way to do this, and one would think that being surrounded by caring doctors at Baylor has influenced this young man and many of the other students who wrote letters and said they wanted to become doctors. Many of these students said that they wanted to join the medical profession because they wanted to be able to help people who like them had to deal with disease. Other careers that could be a way to help people were mentioned as well, like teachers who wanted to educate the youth of the country. One powerful message was from a young woman who stated that she tries to smile and be happy because that is her way of helping others, ““I want to live a life that can inspire others to have hope in their lives.”

The students in Texas are mostly interested in becoming doctors, and when they mention this they almost always cite their desire to be a positive influence in other people’s lives as their reason. For example, a girl in the USA wrote that she want to become a pediatrician because she loves helping kids. One of her classmates wants to be an OBGYN because she loves the idea of helping mothers and their newborn babies.  These students see that there is a lot that needs to be done in the world and rather than passively waiting in the sidelines for others to do it they want to jump in and help out as much as they can. Their positive attitudes and passion for their field is clear from reading their letters and you can see from how often it is mentioned that although their school is hard work they all want to be there in order to get a jumpstart in their meaningful careers.

If the future is in the hands of adolescents like these who are aware of the problems the world faces and are excited to do something about it then the world is in good hands. These letters allowed the students to see that their aspirations and wishes are not so different from people who seem to have nothing in common with themselves and hopefully it keeps them interested in active citizenship and service work.


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