Melanie Soto was uncertain about what to expect during her first trip out of the United States to the Dominican Republic.

“I was really, really scared,” she said.

But the Badger High School senior returned home with greater confidence and knowledge.

The 17-year-old spent almost three weeks during the summer in the Caribbean nation as a youth ambassador.

She took part in a program sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and was the first from her Lake Geneva school to receive the nationwide scholarship.

“When I found out I was selected, it was surreal,” Soto said.

She worked with mentors, youth from across the United States and Dominicans to build a playground in a high-poverty area.

She also took part in cultural tours of cities, visited art museums and monuments, and learned about the history of the country.

The purpose of the DREAMproject is to develop civic responsibility, commitment to community development, awareness of current and global issues, and leadership skills in young adults.

In addition, the project fosters relationships among diverse people.

“Living in Lake Geneva, there is not a lot of diversity,” Soto said.

“My friends also are not super diverse. Culturally, they are from a Caucasian background, mainly.”

About half of the students on the trip were from minority groups.

“They did a good job of finding people from all backgrounds,” Soto said. “By the end of the trip, it was amazing to me to see people from different backgrounds relating to each other.”

Soto’s mother is from Brazil, and her father is from Mexico. She speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese and is taking advanced French through a college course.

She is motivated by personal experience.

“When I was younger and learning English, I felt very isolated,” she said. “… I remember I had a hard time having people understand me. Communicating was a struggle. The more languages I learn, the less people will have to feel like that, especially immigrants coming into the country.”

As a follow-up project, Soto is working with UW-Milwaukee on a program to help children of immigrants going to college.

She urges high school students to look for international learning opportunities, and she praised the DREAMproject.

“This is an amazing program with amazing rewards,” Soto said.

“I would totally advise other kids to break away from however they are sheltered here and to explore what the world has to offer.”