BridgeUSA Alum Authors Book to Raise Awareness for Neurodivergent Children

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Andrea Villasmil is a multifaceted, young entrepreneur from Ecuador who participated in CIEE’s Work & Travel USA (WAT) program as part of BridgeUSA in 2015. Then a 21-year-old Clinical Psychology student at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Andrea admits now that she was not sure exactly what she wanted to do with her life, but she knew that she wanted to make a difference in the world.

Andrea learned about CIEE Work & Travel through a friend. She decided to apply, and was quickly placed with Valleyfair, a Cedar Fair Park in Shakopee, Minnesota, as a Cabana Server. To Andrea, this seemed like an exciting opportunity to travel for the first time on her own and meet new people, but what she did not expect was a life-changing experience in America.

“I had to develop the confidence in myself to realize that it’s not about me – it’s about how I can use the opportunities I’ve been given to create change.” 

Naturally, she learned practical skills in customer service through her work at the park, but she also developed interpersonal skills through living in group housing with other program participants who heralded from cultures vastly different from her own. Andrea’s mind opened to new ways of living and thinking, and she gained the courage to try new things on her own without relying on her established support systems.

“Traveling on your own teaches you lessons that nothing else in life ever will.”

After her summer in Minnesota, Andrea returned to Ecuador, finished her degree, and began working at a local international school - which is where the second half of her story begins. Andrea developed a personal connection with Lucas, a student on the autism spectrum who attended her school. Over time, she noticed obstacles that accompany teaching neurodivergent students and the difficulties these students face when it comes to socializing with their neurotypical peers. 

As a journaling exercise, Andrea began writing “Notes to Lucas” regarding these themes. One such thought was that for society’s mindset regarding neurodivergence to shift, we must get rid of the stigma early on in childhood before it has a chance to develop. Thus, her idea to write a children’s book about neurodivergence and acceptance was born. 

Andrea admits that she dealt with imposter syndrome during the first year of developing her book, but eventually, she decided to “let the universe take care of it.” Shortly thereafter, she received an email from CIEE calling for applicants for the 2019 Exchange Ambassador’s Grant which was established to support alumni who demonstrate outstanding dedication to making a positive impact in their communities and beyond. Andrea applied for the grant and won and suddenly, everything just seemed to fall into place. 

“It’s important to remain connected to the networks you build as you never know when an opportunity is going to knock on your door.”

With the help of the grant from CIEE, Andrea published her book titled, “Volamos Juntos” in 2020. Following the tremendous success of the original edition, the English version, “Fly Together,” was published in 2023 and reached #1 in new releases in Parenting books for Children with Disabilities on Amazon. We celebrate Andrea's remarkable accomplishment, and most importantly, the meaningful message behind her book, which centers on raising awareness for neurodiversity and inclusion and captivates young readers while delivering the important message of empathy and acceptance.

Throughout her journey, Andrea had to learn how to trust herself and to treat herself with the same empathy and acceptance that she was teaching in her book. She believes that “If you’ve been given the tools, knowledge, and network, then you need to use these things to make a positive impact and work towards a mission that is much bigger than yourself”. 

This is a wonderful example of how CIEE Work & Travel and BridgeUSA can open doors for participants and create a network of opportunities across the world. CIEE is proud to have played a part in Andrea’s inspirational story. 

In support of the Autism Society's sixth annual "Celebrate Differences" campaign and in preparation for Autism Acceptance Month beginning in April, let’s join hands as a global community to create supportive environments where everyone feels valued and respected. By supporting initiatives like Andrea's, we can contribute to spreading the message of empathy, acceptance, and unity.

Andrea received her MA in Special and Inclusive Education from University College London in 2021 as a Chevening Scholar and just recently finished up a contract position with UNICEF as an Education Specialist. Currently, she works as a Freelance Writer for Forbes Ecuador on issues of mental health, education, diversity and autism. Next, she plans to pursue a PhD while she continues to work on several personal and professional projects relating to these themes.