“Going to India, I knew I could expect two things: endless heat and endless samosas,” reflected 18-year-old Cameron Woods, a 2015 alumnus of the Experiment for International Living’s inaugural Leadership Institute to India. “But I didn’t expect the paradigm shattering conversations and revelations I would have about concepts I thought I had a good grasp on, like leadership.”
Framed by the theme Globalized and Mobilized: Redefining Youth Leadership, Woods was one of three recent alumni from World Learning’s summer high-school abroad programs to share travel anecdotes and reflections, during a panel presentation for World Learning’s Board of Trustees and Global Advisory Council in Washington, DC last week. The youth then compared and contrasted their experiences with those of three veteran panelists who represented World Learning alumni, staff, and Global Advisory Council. The evening’s unique format served as a drafting table for sketching out the characteristics of a young leader in an increasingly complex, global world.
Recognizing Diverse Leadership
Woods, who was one of four students to receive a MacArthur Foundation scholarship aimed at helping underprivileged youth gain valuable travel abroad experience, said India helped him realize leaders aren’t just people who run countries and organizations, but also people like his host mother, a quiet, Indian woman who demonstrated her strength through child-rearing, domestic labor and community work.
Woods’ counterpart, veteran Voice of America journalist Sonya Laurence Green, was thrilled to encourage that kind of thinking. She noticed similar issues on her own trip to India nearly three decades earlier with World Learning’s yearlong International Honors Program. On her program, she traveled to nine different countries studying ethnographic film, collecting stories from the field and also encouraging the locals, including aboriginals in Australia, to produce and tell their own stories. This inspired her to become a journalist, a role she believes is key to advancing a more balanced and thought provoking public dialogue. She spent 15 years working as a news correspondent in Africa, and now directs VOA’s English to Africa service, employing African journalists to lead public discussions from Ghana to South Sudan.
“Leadership is something you can see at all levels. I would say it starts with civil society,” she told Woods, noting that it might start with locals advocating for better infrastructure, mothers hoping to provide their communities with better health or journalists pushing for laws and protections that allow them to do their jobs with greater freedom and objectivity.
Taking Inspiration from History
Knowing about the world’s great civil rights leaders is also an important part of learning to foster change at the local, national and global level. Khary Armster, another 18-year-old MacArthur Foundation scholarship recipient from Chicago, noted that his trip with the Leadership Institute to South Africa to study peace, politics and human rights allowed him to reflect on the possibilities of non-violent activism. In South Africa, he met influential leaders such as Gandhi’s granddaughter Ela and Durban Mayor James Nxumalo. He was also inspired to find that a one-day community service project — helping a young child with a science experiment — had a major impact. The youth later tracked Armster down on Facebook to say he had won the local science challenge and was going on to compete in Johannesburg.
“At that moment I realized that I have a voice, I have the potential to make a global impact, and once I learned all that overseas, it gave me the determination to make a difference in my own community,” Armster said. “That’s why now I’m trying to get people in my neighborhood registered to vote — so that they have a voice.”
Global Advisory Council Member Julius Coles said similar experiences inspired him to become a diplomat, head the international aid organization Africare, and serve in his current post as the director of the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership at Morehouse College Atlanta, Georgia. In the early 1960s, he developed a sense of solidarity working in humanitarian aid projects throughout West Africa. During a subsequent trip to Europe, he found himself studying for the first time with a wide array of races, including African Americans like himself who were seeking greater freedom abroad.
“That gave me the confidence for the first time in my life that I could really compete, and I came to have the self-confidence that no matter where I was in the world, that I could be successful,” he said.
“To come back to a segregated environment in my own country was not easy,” Coles said, noting that having the support of civil rights leaders helped him to maintain his determination, and adding his appreciation for World Learning’s extensive re-entry programming.
Armster agreed. “I’ve been so fortunate to have that supportive cast around me,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to beginning his freshman year at Morehouse College this coming fall.
“What a great environment and I’m looking forward to having you in that environment. I’m gonna be your mentor,” Coles said.
Leading through Rapport Building
Developing the empathy and understanding it takes to be an effective, service-oriented leader can sometimes be uncomfortable noted 18-year-old Washington, DC resident Noah Kravitz. He said he was apprehensive about sharing his Jewish identity during his trip to Jordan. He felt even more uneasy when a Jordanian Palestinian struck up a conversation on the street about Israeli-Palestinian politics. Kravitz said he remained studiously silent, but was pleasantly surprised when the man told him he just wanted to clarify that he could be against a country’s politics without feeling animosity toward that country’s people.
“I believe the dialogue we create in our programs is very important in creating the leadership we want to see,” noted Rizwaan Akhtar, a World Learning Senior Youth Program Officer.
“Speaking of dialogue, when I hear that word, what I hear is a lot of give and take,” reflected Kravitz. On visit to a Syrian refugee camp, Kravitz said youth were intent on getting visitors to read the Arabic words scrawled across a series of murals meant to beautify their temporary home.
“It became pretty clear that the visit was about something more than us just practicing our Arabic, that it was really a chance for us to talk to the refugees and learn their stories so that we could do something about it,” Kravitz said.
Akhtar, who has spent five years managing World Learning’s Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP), says these exchanges create opportunities for both sides to educate and influence public discourse.
“Today I think about 60–70% of Americans have never met a Muslim in their lives, and the fact that we’re able to find almost 150 families in the United States to actually welcome an Iraqi into their home, that in and of itself is to me an action that shows leadership and that models by example to others in their communities,” he said. “We give those Iraqi students chances to speak to their host families and to their host families’ neighbors and friends, and so they’re having leadership moments, they’re taking action to break down stereotypes on the program itself.”
World Learning realizes that logistics, money, and safety concerns can sometimes inhibit the reach of their exchanges, and so in addition to partnering with groups like the MacArthur Foundation to provide scholarships, World Learning is now launching an online version of the IYLEP program. Sponsored by The Aspen Institute Stevens Initiative, the program is a virtual exchange that was created by the family of the late U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, who was killed during an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September 2012. World Learning Program Development Associate Sara Rahim, an alumna of an SIT Study Abroad program to Morocco who provided the panel’s opening remarks, expressed confidence in World Learning’s ability to make those types of programs meaningful.
“Through our global programs, we are addressing critical international needs through non-traditional ways. As I learned through my own SIT experience, you learn by doing,” she said.
The panel’s moderator, Aaron Brazelton, echoed her enthusiasm. In 2008, World Learning gave him the opportunity to travel from Alabama to Serbia. The world widening experience inspired him to found The Serbia Fellowship Experience, an Alabama-Balkan youth exchange program housed at the University of Alabama, and he is now working as a program associate at World Learning in Washington, DC. For his efforts, Southern Living Magazine recently named him one of 50 Innovators Changing the South. Brazelton closed by urging the audience to recognize these young people not as leaders of tomorrow, but as youth who are already leaders today. In thanking World Learning’s supporters, he marveled, “Without you, it is quite possible that I would never have thought to leave my small circle in rural Alabama, and I certainly would not be globalized or mobilized.”