Youth Ambassadors from Brazil
outside the US Capitol building
in Washington, DC.
IBM volunteers mentor the
students before their visit to the US.

When visiting the United States, do you greet a stranger with one, two or three kisses? Talk about politics? Be fashionably late for social events? Put ketchup on your pizza?

The answers to these questions are only the start of a volunteer mentoring program for bridging cultures that Leo Wagner Fernandes has managed for four years.

Leo, an incentives operations specialist for IBM in Rio De Janiero, leads a team of IBM volunteers who mentor 15 to 18 year old students who have been selected for the highly competitive Youth Ambassadors Program—a social responsibility initiative of the United States Embassy in Brazil, in partnership with public and private organizations.

For his volunteerism in the program, Leo received a 2016 IBM Volunteer Excellence Award.

Preparing for the unfamiliar

Leo learned about the Youth Ambassadors Program and volunteered as a mentor in 2011 when IBM marked its 100th anniversary with a celebration of service and volunteerism around the world.

“It was so successful and great to be part of the program,” he says. “The experience was so rewarding that when the person leading the project left IBM left, I decided to see how I could make it happen again.”

The US Department of State's Youth Ambassadors Program has slightly different application criteria depending on the country—the program is available in Canada, Latin America, South America, and the Caribbean.

In Brazil, where the program is designed to strengthen the ties of friendship, respect and collaboration between Brazil and the United States, the criteria include: little or no experience abroad, no previous visits to the Unites States, public school education, an economically disadvantaged background, high academic marks, and a leadership profile.

“The selection process is very competitive, with applications coming from all over Brazil,” says Leo. “Given the criteria, the students may lack cultural awareness, they may lack some preparation for an international program; maybe they are too self-conscious about language or travelling outside their home state and country for the first time.”

The selected students travel to the United States for a three-week stay each January, but the process for Leo begins the previous October when he starts recruiting IBM volunteers to be mentors—who commit at least two hours a week for four weeks, speak fluent English and have some experience with American culture.

Then in November he pairs mentors with students—usually around 50 students, and tries for one-on-one relationships to ensure everyone gets the attention they want.

Virtual mentoring for a real-life experience

While the selected students will certainly leave their Brazilian homes to visit the United States to expand their world view, the mentoring process with Leo and the IBM volunteers doesn’t go anywhere—it is digital and virtual, taking place online using Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook, and the telephone since the students can live anywhere in Brazil.

“The experience of being a Youth Ambassador gives these outstanding students the opportunity to expand their horizons,” says Leo. “But first we need to connect with them in whatever way works best, short of actually travelling; technology gives us great flexibility.”

Leo, who grew up in the United States, structures the mentorship agenda into four parts: American culture and cultural awareness, presentation skills, public speaking skills, and “anything else”—an open agenda item for whatever the mentee wants.

“We do everything in English to help them practice and feel more confident,” he says. “I also share my experience and have the other mentors share theirs, but always in a positive way. We don’t want the student to get nervous, and we want them to value the differences and learn from it.”

Because the mentoring is virtual, IBM volunteers can also be anywhere in Brazil, which Leo says is a benefit. “Brazil is so big and diverse that a student may live a state where the culture is different than mine or the other mentors—it’s a constant exchange of information and experience.”

One year about 65 IBM volunteers joined the program, enough for each student to have two mentors.

“The IBM volunteer team is essential to this program—it couldn’t happen without them,” Leo says. “Although we have busy lives and work, the mentors get so much back from the experience with these young people; it’s a very dynamic relationship, one that the volunteers say inspires and energizes them.”

Coming home

The bond between mentor and mentee forms quickly as the student wants to glean as much insight as possible from their coach. And the bond sometimes remains when the student returns home.

“They usually have a reality shock coming back home, so sometimes they just want to talk,” Leo says. “But also months and years afterwards, they do ask for work advice, trip advice, or want to meet in person if we are in the same area. I’m still friends with several students from the program.”

When they return the students share stories about food differences, funny language misunderstandings, the bond they created with their host family, or seeing snow for the first time.

“I really see their transformation, the confidence they gain and how they grow,” Leo says. “I hope that their energy will influence others, that they will lead and inspire others by example, and that they will work hard to have their dreams come true.”

And helping these students follow their dreams is something Leo says any volunteer can do.

“It is not true that to be a volunteer who must be the best at something or have a lot of time or money,” he says. “There are volunteering opportunities for people with little time, no experience or those you can’t travel. Volunteering and helping others is for everyone, and we can all benefit from it.

Leo Wagner Fernandes is among 14 other IBM teams and individuals who are recipients of the twelfth annual IBM Volunteer Excellence Award. The award is recognition from IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty, and is the highest form of global volunteer recognition given by the company to employees.

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