WASHINGTON -- With her senior year of high school starting in a week, Melissa Parra, of Chihuahua, Mexico, was focused on a problem that most of her American peers would never face: drug cartels.
"It just gets closer," Parra, 17, said of cartel violence in her hometown in northern Mexico. Just two days ago, her mother called to tell her about a boy in her community who had been killed.
"He had good grades. He was a good guy," Parra said. "He was working to help the family."
Parra does not expect to stop the violence, but she sees an opportunity to change the environment that makes her classmates vulnerable to cartel recruiters. That was one of the goals of the project she designed this summer. Parra worked alongside 76 other students from across Mexico who came to the U.S. to develop community service projects in hopes of fighting the drugs, violence, and truancy that plague their country.
Parra spoke Wednesday at a ceremony on American University's campus where groups of students presented plans targeting domestic violence, self-esteem problems, childhood development, bullying and risky behavior – all problems that they felt underscore the country's larger issues.
Sonora Horta, of Pachuca, Mexico, said her group was working to address what she called "the root of all problems."
Having high self-esteem and clear goals, said Horta, 17, makes young people less likely to get involved with violence, gangs and drug addiction.
The international nonprofit group World Learning organized the students' five-weeklong trip, which took them to Washington, Vermont and other parts of the U.S.
World Learning Senior Program Officer Cari Graves said giving the students the opportunity to meet with government and NGO officials taught them about leadership and setting realistic goals for tackling the problems that emerge in their country.
"Mexico being the United States' neighbor and drugs, gangs and violence being a common issue for both countries, it's just a really hot topic right now that we want to address," Graves said.
Alejandro Rangel, a tall, well-dressed 17-year-old who friends joke will be the next Mexican president, said his group had trouble getting community leaders to take their plans to combat bullying seriously. He said people thought they were "just jokers, youngsters."
"That's not true," Rangel said. "We're here to help them. We want to help them."
Rangel, Parra and the rest of their group read about bullying behavior and met with psychologists to learn about their topic over the weeks they spent in Seattle, Wash
Both students said bullying was a problem they experienced firsthand. After her family moved to North Carolina when she was an infant, Parra moved back to Mexico at the age of eight, and the shy girl faced taunting and teasing.
She said in the U.S. she faced discrimination because of her Mexican heritage, but she was also shunned in her home country.
"You go back to Mexico, and you're American ... you're gringa," Parra said. "And I'm like, no, I'm not gringa. I was born here."
Parra hopes to prevent other students from having to face the isolation and bullying she experienced.
"Big changes start with small ones," Parra said, expressing optimism about her group's anti-bullying campaign, which focuses on providing workshops to teach teamwork and is intended to change life for youth in Chihuahua.
The U.S. State Department, Mexico's Ministry of Education and private donors funded the trip. Alejandra De La Paz, the Mexican Embassy's cultural attaché in Washington, D.C. said the program was meant to reward "the social commitment and the desires of our new generations to change and transform their communities and their country."
The students return to Mexico Thursday. They plan to reconvene next year in Mexico City to track the projects' progress.