Betty Avude understands the power of cultural exchange programs better than most. She is an alumna of two World Learning exchange programs, which not only helped her unlock new leadership skills but also gave her the opportunity to put those skills into action.
In 2014, this young Kenyan woman studied abroad in the United States as part of the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (Global UGRAD). During her year at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, Avude pursued her studies in business administration and learned about U.S. culture. Her experiences on campus gave her the confidence to become a leader when she returned home — which came in handy this past summer when she served as a counselor teaching women’s empowerment workshops at the Women in Science (WiSci) Girls STEAM Camp in Windhoek, Namibia.
World Learning spoke with Avude — who recently completed an internship in sales and marketing with a consumer goods company based in Kenya — about her experiences in both programs to learn more about the lasting effects of cultural exchange:
Why did you apply for Global UGRAD?
When I was in university, I wanted to study abroad. I told my faculty that I would like to study abroad at some point in my life because I just wanted to experience how people out in the world are doing their studies. That opportunity came through the U.S. embassy. I was nominated among the people who were interviewed for that opportunity and then I qualified.
What was your favorite part of the experience?
One of my best experiences was the culture night. We used to have culture nights at St. Kate’s, and an international potluck with American students and students from all over the world. We exchanged our culture, our dances, and food. Just everything.
Then another thing [I loved was] the snow in Minnesota. I’d always wanted to see snow, so I was really excited about the snow. I remember the first night we had to stay up until like 3 a.m. to wait for the first snowstorm. It was really exciting to see the snow fall down.
What have you been doing since then?
I went back to my university because I had two more years to complete in my undergraduate studies.
When I went back to the university, most of my friends were so excited — they wanted to learn about what I had learned in the USA. I started an aerobics club because I had taken a dancing class in the U.S. and learned a lot of dance moves. At my university, a lot of ladies had never participated in sports, so I told them, “What about if we start an aerobics club?” I was the leader and we used to do our exercises from 5 to 6 every day Monday to Friday. The ladies were so excited.
How did you find out about the WiSci counselor opportunity?
I used to keep in touch with [World Learning Undergraduate Programs Manager] Amy Fisher Bruey. She sent me the link and told me, “Oh Betty, you’d like this.” And I thought, “OK, let me apply and see if I qualify for it.” I saw that it was something I would want to do because I’m so passionate about empowering women in society. I talk to women in the community where I come from. I just like inspiring and talking to them.
What kinds of things do you discuss with women in your community?
In college, we had a group called Women in Technology. Even though I was not majoring in technology, I could discuss issues with them. And then some of the other topics we could discuss were wellness, health, and entrepreneurship, how to start a small business. Most of us depended on our parents for pocket money, so we would discuss how to empower ourselves instead.
What skills did you learn from Global UGRAD that helped you as a WiSci counselor?
Communication. At first, I wasn’t the kind of person who would believe I could talk in front of people. Global UGRAD built my confidence. I felt like I could do something. Before that, I didn’t believe in myself. I would have ideas, but I didn’t know how to present them. But after being at UGRAD, I felt more empowered to talk to people. I could talk about how to handle certain challenges that we face in college. The UGRAD experience created a platform for me to talk to people, too. When I came back from UGRAD, people listened to me.
What aspect of UGRAD helped you become a better communicator?
St. Kate’s encouraged a lot of participation in events. We had a center called the Center for Women. Someone would come up with a topic and then we’d go there and brainstorm about the topic. So, the fact that I went to a school that inspired women to voice their ideas, that empowered me.
Before I went to St. Kate’s, I was part of the events but I wasn’t taking leadership roles. After St. Kate’s, I could take leadership roles because I felt more confident about myself and people listened to me.
How did those communication skills help you at the WiSci Camp?
It really helped me because I felt like I didn’t have to fear what other people think about me. If I have an opinion, I can voice it and not worry about what people think.
I felt more confident leading the Girl Up classes. At first, I wasn’t connecting so much to my students, but starting from the third day we built trust with each other and then suddenly I became more comfortable with them and they were also comfortable with me. We could trust each other and feel more comfortable to raise our opinions without caring about being challenged.
What was your favorite part of WiSci?
My favorite part were the culture nights. The girls were free to represent who they were through costumes and dances. And their skits were so funny.
What did you learn from the camp?
I learned that women face common challenges. We discovered it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, we’re similar in a way. We were coming from different cultures — the U.S., Kenya, Swaziland, Namibia, and Ethiopia — but all of us could come together and talk and feel like we had similar challenges. When we come together as women, we can empower each other through sharing information and encouraging one another.
The Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (Global UGRAD) brings future leaders to the U.S. to experience the U.S. educational system, share their culture, and explore U.S. culture and values. Many Global UGRAD alumni go on to receive Fulbright grants, obtain prestigious international internships, and work in business and government in their home countries and regions. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. government and administered by World Learning.
Women in Science (WiSci) Girls STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Design, and Mathematics) Camp is a private-public partnership (PPP) between the U.S. Department of State’s Secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships, UN Foundation’s Girl Up Initiative, Intel Corporation, and Google. In 2018, the camp brought together approximately 100 high school girls from the African continent and the U.S., as well as adult counselors from each country, for 13 days in Namibia to explore the STEAM fields and access mentorship opportunities and leadership training.