Young Southeast Asian Leaders Study Civic Engagement at Kennesaw State

March 29, 2016

“Now everything has changed. My perspective is different. My mindset is different.”

These are the words of Izwan Daud, a recent graduate of Brunei Polytechnic in Jalan Ong Sum Ping, Brunei, spoken after completing a five-week academic fellowship at Kennesaw State University. Daud is one of 22 fellows from Southeast Asia selected to participate in the U.S. Department of State’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Institute on Civic Engagement from Feb. 1 – March 7, 2016.

Izwan Daud with Askildson and Papp

YSEALI Fellow Izwan Daud (center) with KSU Vice-Provost for Global Affairs Dr. Lance Askildson (left) and University President Dr. Daniel Papp (right)

He and his cohort spent four weeks on campus studying civil and human rights with Kennesaw State faculty. The experience included 40 hours of classroom instruction, 16 hours of hands-on community service with Atlanta-area nonprofits, bi-weekly guest speakers, weekly sessions dedicated to developing community service projects to take back to their home countries, and visits to relevant cultural sites such as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Following the on-campus portion of the program, the YSEALI fellows participated in a study tour of key regional civil rights landmarks in Selma, Birmingham and Nashville.

Academic directors Dr. Nuru Akinyemi and Dr. Linda Johnston worked with other Kennesaw State faculty to use the U.S. civil rights movement of the last 50 years as a lens through which to teach the YSEALI fellows about global civil and human rights and the need for civic engagement in their own communities.

“Civic engagement means caring about others and donating your time,” Dr. Akinyemi told the fellows during their welcome ceremony. “Service to your community is the rent you pay to be a part of that community.”

YSEALI Fellows in Class

Classwork during the YSEALI program included educational presentations about the fellows' home countries

The strategy was a successful one. Daud and the other YSEALI fellows returned home with a newfound appreciation for the importance of using civic engagement to improve the lives of all people.

“Before coming to the United States, I took for granted that every part of the world struggles with its own issues of civil and human rights,” Daud said. “But as I learned, race, politics, identity, and economics all form a potent mix that makes policymaking difficult everywhere.”

Daud has always had a passion for community service. He previously led a team to propose a cleanup project at Lambak Kanan Mosque, volunteered at the Ministry of Health’s World Cancer Day in 2012, and worked in Cambodia with the charity Pour Un Sourire D’Enfant to feed hungry children. Daud says his time in the YSEALI Institute has further nurtured his desire to help others.

“I feel like I now have a better idea of how to care for the well-being of other Bruneians,” he said. “I will return home with a wealth of knowledge and a desire to develop my skills even further to help others who are facing challenges.”

YSEALI Fellows Community Service

Community service projects such as working with local nonprofit MedShare to send medical supplies to developing countries are an important part of the YSEALI Institute

Launched by President Barack Obama in 2013, YSEALI is a broad initiative designed to create strong cultural bonds between the United States and the future leaders of Southeast Asia. Universities across America host YSEALI fellows each year, leading institutes on one of YSEALI’s four themes: 1) Economic Development, 2) Environment and Natural Resources, 3) Education, and 4) Civic Engagement.

Kennesaw State University’s Division of Global Affairs (DGA) received a $240,000 grant from the State Department to host an Institute on Civic Engagement titled Advancing International Civil and Human Rights through Civic Engagement. The fellows come from a variety of cultural and educational backgrounds. Some, like Daud, are recent graduates, while others are still working on their undergraduate or graduate degrees. The fellows’ home countries include Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Participating in the YSEALI Institute not only gave a group of exceptional young people from Southeast Asia the opportunity to experience U.S. culture while learning about an important topic, but it also gave the Kennesaw State campus community the opportunity to enrich its intercultural landscape.

“We didn’t invite you here only to learn, but to also teach and share with us,” Kennesaw State University Vice-Provost for Global Affairs Dr. Lance Askildson said during the YSEALI welcome event. “We want you to share your experiences with people who might not be as knowledgeable or as curious about the world as you are.”

Askildson welcoming YSEALI fellows

Dr. Lance Askildson leads the YSEALI orientation on the first day of the program

Echoing a famous quote from Mark Twain that states "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness...," Askildson said that interacting with people from other countries is the best way to improve understanding between cultures.

“Teach others to know you and to know themselves,” he said.

In order to encourage interaction between the participants and Kennesaw State students, the DGA worked with the University’s Asian Studies Student Organization on a conversation partners program. Each YSEALI fellow had the option to spend 3 hours a week with their assigned student conversation partner to practice their English and ask any questions they may have about campus or U.S. culture. Many YSEALI fellows became friends with their conversation partners and with Kennesaw State faculty members, and have pledged to keep in touch after returning home.

“I was nurtured into a better leader and a better person in general,” Daud said, “especially because of the interactions, discussions, and problem-solving we did with our professors and mentors.”

YSEALI Fellows receiving ID cards

The YSEALI Fellows receive their Kennesaw State ID cards

The experience was as memorable for the Kennesaw students, faculty, and staff as well.

“I truly hope [the fellows] feel as fulfilled with the experience as we do,” said Kennesaw State faculty member Mazida Khan. “This project really demonstrated to me the amazing results that genuine, collaborative efforts can bring.”

Kennesaw State’s YSEALI grant is for three years, meaning the University is looking forward to hosting a new group of fellows next academic year.

YSEALI Fellows Welcome

All the YSEALI Fellows along with Kennesaw State faculty and staff administering the program

-Patrick Harbin