“This program has offered me the opportunity to experience what I’ve learned in school, a lot of what I teach my pupils and read on the internet and books…. I am sure this will breed a group of young leaders with a hunger for success.” (Private Mchenga of Malawi, PAYLP Adult Mentor participant)
Students will often look to adults, school, and friends to shape the things they do not know. When that is not enough television and movies fill in the gaps. As it turns out, romanticized perceptions, movies, and television often steer us further away from the reality of the situation. The best anecdote for these misconceptions is experience. A child living in Kenya might understand the U.S. as many other people living outside the U.S. may: a place with abundant opportunity, freedom, and a place where everyone lives well and comfortably. A child living in America with an affinity for The Lion King and Tarzan, may perceive Africa as a place with amazing scenery, a lot of trees, wild life, and exotic cultures. Whether these perceptions are accurate or not, the excitement and newness of being in the unknown is often what drives the motivation to experience that unknown. The experience of enveloping yourself in a new place leads to the understanding of that place for what is, accepting both the good and the bad.
U.S. Department of States Pan Africa Youth Leadership Program (PAYLP) gives young adults that very opportunity. This program is a three-week cultural exchange which aims to strengthen the participants’ understanding of civic rights and responsibilities, entrepreneurship, respect for diversity, and the importance of community engagement. Highlights from the program include spending an opening conference and local excursions in Washington, DC, followed by two weeks at Ball State University, in Muncie, Indiana where students are exposed to classroom based lectures, interactive workshops, trainings and simulations focused on social entrepreneurship, action planning and homestays. A participant from Nigeria, summed up his time in Washington as “an amazing outing…. The art, the architecture, the philosophy, the people, the history, the government, the liberty.” Many participants were amazed by the greenery in Washington, D.C. Another youth participant, Alinane Mazalo from Malawi, marveled at the abundance of vegetation in DC and plans to make her city of Lilongwe as green and beautiful as Washington DC. The students were also exposed to more challenging aspects of American society such as homelessness, environmental concerns, and the high cost of living which is continuously expanding the gap between the affluent and people living in poverty. In the instances when they met with people from Ball State University, an opportunity was provided for an open dialogue about social entrepreneurship, community engagement and action planning and how they will bring back strategies to use in their own countries. It is obvious that when people come together, the world seems smaller, more accessible, and less foreign.
When we take the leap and challenge our points of view, we are no longer left to our imaginations, movies, and television for our sources of reference. We are more appropriately equipped, informed based on our exposure and experiences.
My name is Shay Brown I am a Marketing and Communications Intern in the GlobalConnect Division at Meridian International Center. I moved to DC to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from Georgetown University and future career as a journalist. As I reflect on my own situation being new to the D.C. metropolitan area, I very strongly and optimistically believed everyone in D.C. was successful. In my view, D.C. was a place filled with an exceptional amount of culture and eclectic places to visit. Though many of these ideas where accurate, nevertheless I still did not have the full picture. It was not until I moved to D.C. that I realized the reality, and as I am starting to understand more, I am beginning to cultivate my place in the city. Once an individual has been sufficiently exposed to a community and has immersed themselves in the culture they positively contribute to that community. Being in DC I now understand how my skills, and passions and compliment the community. Similarly, PAYLP student’s skills, qualities, and passions can positively impact the culture of America. These experiences are absolutely necessary. The more we learn from one another we can embrace each other’s differences and cherish the similarities. Grappling with the hardships and creating change.
The above blog has been written by Meridian Fall intern, Shay L. Brown.