An Empowering Moment That Helped Miguel Own His Identity

By Brian Smith

One thing, above all else, awaited Miguel in Costa Rica.

The ability to own his identity.

But, he had no idea it would find him there in one of the most empowering and personal moments of his life.

It was 2011 and the shy, reserved high school student had only traveled outside the United States once — to the Mexican town where his family is from. He never expected an international travel scholarship to be offered at his low-income school located in a particularly rough Oakland neighborhood.

And while he was excited to see a new world, he knew he’d be traveling with relative strangers – classmates he’d never spoken with. That was concerning to someone who “wasn’t that comfortable around most people,” he said.

But along the Learning AFAR  journey – a program created in partnership with AFAR Miguel’s walls came down.

Miguel 4During his days exploring the jungle, he started to push himself – he went swimming in a river despite his fear of water and flew across a zip line despite his suspicions that he might “chicken out” at the last minute.

With each new experience, he grew closer with the others on the trip and from that new sense of connection, he opened up about a deeply personal truth: he is gay.

While he’d come out to certain people before, he’d never felt comfortable enough to tell a group.

“I felt like a new person, it was such a relief, like I’d been hiding something,” he said. “It was just how nice these people are and how much trust I can have with them. I’ve done things I wouldn’t normally do, like zip lining and a lot of the other group activities. It just came out of me.”

The experience wasn’t just liberating — it was empowering.

Before coming out on the trip, a part of Miguel was afraid that his classmates would judge him, or make fun of him. When they didn’t, he started to change his mind about the universal moment that gay youth experience.

Back at school, he realized there were others who likely felt the same way. He wanted to create a comfortable space like the one he found on his Learning AFAR trip. So, he started a Gay-Straight Alliance club that continues today.

“The trip brought it all together in terms of things I could do,” he said. “When you come out, you feel different about yourself. You feel new.”Miguel 1

Able to own his identity, Miguel found a sense of confidence that propels him still today. And he stills stays in touch with those former strangers who went on the trip and shared in that moment.

“We still have that bond we had when were over there,” he said.

Jessica Bowler, No Barriers Communications Manager, shares that bond. Bowler was on the Learning AFAR trip with Miguel and said witnessing his moments of bravery changed her life.

“I try to live through Miguel in moments of fear,” she said. “I try to channel his grit in moments when I feel weak. I still count on his positivity in moments when I need some inspiration.”

“And I will forever crave being a part of those moments when I know that No Barriers Youth is transforming lives. It is why I love what I do. And I have Miguel to thank every day.”

All students are funded through the generosity of individual donations and corporate sponsorships. To support Learning AFAR and No Barriers’ other life-changing programs, visit our donation portal.

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