Youth Programs at the Forefront of Civic Engagement

Posted by Mara Tekach
February 26, 2015
Alumni from around the world convene for a YES global conference.

This week, 100 Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program high school students representing 35 countries with significant Muslim populations brought their enthusiasm to Washington, D.C.  They arrived at the State Department to participate in a weeklong Civic Education workshop that includes interactive seminars to learn about the U.S. system of government.  Throughout their week of activities, these amazing young students engaged representatives of Congress and their staff, civic organizations, and the media. 

Each one of these students is an ambassador – they teach Americans about their country and culture, while also immersing themselves in the diversity of America.  And when they go home, most leave a lasting impact on their host communities.  Both participants and host family remember the experience, often for the rest of their lives.

As an example of this impact, three YES alumni who are back in the United States to mentor YES students during the week, spoke to us about their experiences and how the program developed their leadership skills and enabled them to become active global citizens.

Firasat Rizwana Siddiqui, a Pakistani YES Program Alumna [State Department Photo]

  • Firasat Rizwana Siddiqui, of Pakistan, completed her YES year in Charleston, West Virginia in 2006. She returned to Pakistan to work on many community service projects, including teaching English and computer skills to underprivileged and at-risk students in some of the toughest areas of Karachi, fundraising for earthquake and flood victims, and conducting awareness campaigns for students about volunteerism and active citizenship. She has volunteered with UNICEF and spearheaded the establishment of a children’s council for advocacy and enhanced rights in Pakistan. 

Hamza Arsbi, of Jordan, completed his YES year in 2007 in Beaverton, Oregon [State Department Photo]

  • Hamza Arsbi, of Jordan, completed his YES year in 2007 in Beaverton, Oregon, where he earned an award for his abundant hours of community service. Hamza took his passion for change home with him, and has participated in many community service projects and social activism programs, namely, awareness campaigns to diminish stigma surrounding mental illness and advocacy for ending domestic abuse towards women.  He started his own non-profit, the Scientific Culture Society (SCS), to improve education in Jordan and increase awareness of the importance of scientific research to cultural and economic growth. SCS has reached over 700 students in eight cities across Jordan since its inception three years ago. 

Mohamed Elbetity, an Egyptian YES Program Alumni [State Department Photo]

  • Mohamed Elbetity, of Egypt, completed his YES year in Sheffield, Massachusetts, in 2010.  Since returning home to Egypt, Mohamed has been elected to progressive levels of student government, culminating as an elected student representative to the National Students Council. In his hometown, Mohamed and his family founded the Fekra Cultural Center which brings together global artists to conduct workshops and retreats. He is also a co-founder of the Elraseef Cultural Initiative (ECI) to get people of all walks of life talking and exchanging ideas. ECI includes a magazine, street festivals and a cultural center in Cairo, which is a popular meeting place, and venue for idea sharing that has spawned many other start-ups. 

During their presentations, these alumni credited their year living with a U.S. host family and attending a U.S. high school with changing their perspectives on the world and making them more open-minded and committed to making a difference. The intimacy and bonds formed through these kinds of exchanges created lasting relationships that ultimately shape the United States' reputation abroad. What often began as an exchange of customs and culture more often than not became a life-changing impacts for the student, the host family, the school, and community. 

We invite you to learn more about our many impactful exchange stories here.  And for Americans, please do consider becoming a State Department host family to help increase intercultural awareness and break down stereotypes.  All the information you need can be found here.  It will expand your world and your community.  

About the Author: Mara Tekach serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Professional and Cultural Exchanges in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Follow @ECAatState on Twitter.


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