World Learning hosted the Youth Ambassadors Alumni Summit in January to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its Youth Ambassadors Program. A total of 75 alumni representing more than 20 countries attended the summit held in Washington, DC. Lee Satterfield, assistant secretary of state for the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational Cultural Affairs, and World Learning CEO Carol Jenkins kicked off the summit with opening remarks that reflected on the power of people-to-people exchange programs like Youth Ambassadors. Since 2002, the program has brought together high school students and adult mentors from across the Western Hemisphere through in-person or virtual exchange programs.
“People-to-people exchanges bring foreign policy to life. They help open the avenues of communication, collaboration, and action,” Satterfield said.
“All of you have put what you’ve learned about inclusive, representative leadership to work, thereby strengthening democratic institutions in your communities and countries.” Jenkins expanded on this idea, noting that the alumni represent a rising generation of new leaders with a shared desire to make a change in the world. This introduction set the tone for an engaging Summit focused on how one can best support their community and be a conscious leader in all aspects of life. It was common to come across late-night conversations with alumni representing multiple countries discussing how they can best advocate for their communities and work to better them. It is safe to say that the Summit’s goal of creating spaces for alumni to connect on how to better their communities and network across YA generation and region was accomplished.
“As Youth Ambassadors alumni, you have led as responsible changemakers tackling pressing social and economic issues in your schools and communities through the development and implementation of community-based initiatives and follow-on projects,” Jenkins said. The summit included five days of community-building and professional development opportunities. Alumni could attend community dialogue sessions, a graduate school and career fair, and workshops focused on topics such as women in leadership, effective advocacy, and cross-cultural communication. Overall, the summit provided a chance for alumni to connect with peers and further develop their professional skills, as well as reflect on their experiences when they were in the Youth Ambassador Program.
A major highlight of the program was providing ample opportunity for alumni to lead community roundtables, workshops, and discussions on topics they found important. It was incredible seeing how much knowledge and experience our alumni hold and witnessing their excitement to both learn from and teach each other. Michael from Texas and Ruqqayah from Trinidad and Tobago worked ahead of the program to prepare a join presentation on “Economics for All” and taught their group why economics is, and should be, accessible to all. Laetitia from Canada and Adrian from Colombia prepared a workshop on food access and how to support this in one’s local community. The list goes on and on – in total, the Summit incorporated 12 participant-led workshops and 7 participant-led discussion and roundtables, with 31 total alumni leading all.
“The biggest thing that I learned from Youth Ambassadors is the idea of being the humble servant,” Mia Harrison, a U.S. student who participated in a 2021 virtual exchange with Uruguay and Paraguay, said. “We have the ability to not speak for a group of people, but instead give the microphone over to that group to speak. And that’s what I think a lot of young people, especially the U.S. students, get from the program.” Shawnalee Gordon, who traveled from Dominica to the U.S. in 2019 to learn more about environmental protection, valued the opportunity to immerse herself in a new culture through Youth Ambassadors. “It really fostered my cultural awareness,” she said. “I actually got to immerse in the culture and in a new environment, and tackle stereotypes I may have had about the U.S.”
Two mornings of the Summit were dedicated to workshops rotations where alumni selected which 8 of the 12 concurrent workshops they wanted to attend. The workshop topics were as follows: Cross-cultural Communication, Being your Best Self, Volunteer Management, Budgeting 101, Networking 101, Public Speaking and Storytelling, Women in Leadership, Tools for Conscious Leadership, Advocacy 101, EDI in Global Careers, Time Management, and Tools for Effective Conflict Resolution. Prior to the Summit, attendees completed a pre-program survey which asked alumni to share which topics they were seeking to learn more about during the Summit, and all these topics were directly requested from our participants.
For Gordon, the summit was also a chance to broaden her growing network with like-minded individuals. “I was excited to get to know people from Latin America, from different states in the U.S., and expand my network,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to learn about each other’s cultures, exchange ideas, and come up with solutions because, at the end of the day, we’re all a part of one global society.”
Twenty years ago, the Youth Ambassadors Program started as a 12-student exchange from Brazil. Today, it has expanded to nearly 500 students and educators from more than 30 countries participating annually. Through their exchanges, the participants explore themes like social inclusion, entrepreneurship, and environmental protection while engaging in experiential learning activities; leadership training and mentoring; and civic participation and volunteering at the local level.