In the East Room of the White House this past Monday, I listened intently as a young woman named Zin eloquently told her personal story about trying to build a free and open press in Myanmar. As I absorbed the significance of her efforts, I realized she is exemplifying how this generation of emerging leaders in Southeast Asia is already shaping the future of their region in profound ways. Zin then introduced President Obama for a town hall-style event with her peers -- 74 Fellows who are part of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI).
YSEALI Fellows are emerging leaders ages 18-35 from all ten Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries who are already making an impact as local elected officials, entrepreneurs, student activists, doctors, journalists, teachers, NGO leaders, and ministry officials. The Fellows come to the United States for five weeks to expand their skills and networks in the areas of entrepreneurship and economic empowerment, environment, education, and civic engagement.
Over the course of the next hour, the talent of this group was brought into sharper focus as the YSEALI Fellows excitedly engaged President Obama on a range of topics, from pressing policy challenges in the region to effective styles of political leadership to how to better align one’s values and passions with meaningful work. Young people play a critical role in determining the world’s future, and it’s particularly true in Southeast Asia, where two out of every three people are under 35 years old. This unique White House event served as a powerful platform for YSEALI Fellows to share their insights with the American President at the culmination of their intensive U.S. experiences.
YSEALI, launched in 2013, is President Obama’s signature initiative to strengthen leadership development across ASEAN countries, deepen U.S. engagement with youth influencers on regional and global challenges, and strengthen people-to-people ties between the United States and Southeast Asia. In addition to the expanded fellowship that was announced by President Obama in a town hall in Myanmar in November 2014, YSEALI offers a broad set of regional workshops, funding opportunities, in-country activities, and virtual engagement designed to support the goals and aspirations of young ASEAN leaders. To find out more about YSEALI and be a part of the 35,000+ YSEALI network, go to: https://youngsoutheastasianleaders.state.gov
As I left the White House following the YSEALI event, a colleague remarked that if anyone thought young leaders from Southeast Asia were passive players sitting on the sidelines, watching as challenges passed them by, the White House event shattered that perception. I couldn’t agree more; the YSEALI fellows are actively using their collective voices for positive change, unlocking their human capital and tackling mutual challenges together in an effort to build a more interconnected and prosperous ASEAN region for the future.
About the Author: Andy Rabens serves as the Special Advisor for Global Youth Issues at the U.S. Department of State in the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.