If you follow me on Snapchat, you probably noticed snaps that revolved around Saudi Arabia, international exchange, Virginia Tech, social impact, and Washington, D.C. throughout this past July. What was that all about? Back in April, I was selected as one of three facilitators/trainers/trip leaders for the US State Department-funded Saudi Young Leaders Exchange Program (SYLEP). Implemented by the NGO, Legacy International, this program brings 33 US Riyadh Embassy-selected Saudi university students to the US to develop and foster leadership and entrepreneurial skills.
Prior to the arrival of these young Saudis, I spent a few days in southwestern Virginia at the headquarters of Legacy International and then another week in DC learning the ropes and preparing for their orientation and check-in. It was great to catch up with a few friends and soak up being back in DC again. While I’ve never lived there, my childhood in southeast Virginia and doing undergrad at William & Mary resulted in a lot of time spent there.
Everyone was buzzing as our 33 19-26 year old Saudi participants arrived at our hotel-away-from-home in DC. Even after hearing stories from colleagues that had worked on previous editions of the program and then reading a book on Saudi youth culture, I knew that I was still going to learn a lot from the 12 participants I’d been charged with. The overall participant group was divided into three groups with each one doing an immersion week in a different part of the US – Pittsburgh, Austin, and Blacksburg, VA. While I was curious as to how our Saudi visitors would view rural, southwestern Virginia, my sister, a Virginia Tech graduate, thought I’d won the lottery when I was assigned to the Blacksburg group.
Although the two DC weeks that sandwiched the Blacksburg immersion week kept all SYLEP participants together, we facilitated many activities within our smaller groups as a way to encourage teamwork, collaboration, personal responsibility, and group bonding. This included things like morning check-ins, checking attendance, getting from one location to another (via Metro, Uber, etc.), social excursions, and project planning sessions. I took our first meeting to make it clear that I was there to push and challenge them and said, “I’m not here for you to like me. I’m here to serve as a coach and mentor and to get you out of your comfort zones because that’s the only way you’re going to learn. If you end up liking me, great! If not, well, you can’t like everyone.” I later learned that they were worried I would be sent home when I broke my foot so this approach seemed to have worked.
From the very beginning, I wanted to forge a close-knit group of Blacksburg participants and I received a lot of suggestions for how to make this happen. I figured if there were tears during their final goodbyes upon departure, that I’d have more or less done my job. Yes, there were tangible deliverables participants had to submit but to me, the interpersonal aspects of working with others and personal growth were even more paramount. It was a trip to Forever 21, of all places, that gave me the idea to theme the Blacksburg group around all things “Unicorn”. I was initially there to shop for more light, DC appropriate yet conservative clothing to help make the participants feel more comfortable yet I found myself milling about the accessory section. There I spotted a fountain of unicorn stuff – markers, stickers, pencils – and that’s when it hit me. Upon discovering a playful “unicorn rainbow ball gun” and recalling that in the entrepreneurship world, a unicorn is a start-up valued at over $1 billion, I knew it was meant to be. Little did I know how much the group would take to this! From posing like unicorns to calling the camel “the Saudi unicorn”, they loved how it made them feel like a family.
Despite my acute awareness that the Saudi concept of time is very different from ours in the US, I stressed timeliness and during the first few days, energetically pulled out the unicorn rainbow gun if my unicorns were late. I wanted to emphasize professionalism, respect of others’ time, and accountability in the real world, especially as many of them are studying to be doctors. The first few days were filled with a sightseeing trip around DC to all of the monuments, a photo scavenger hunt around the Smithsonian museums, a tour of the US Capitol (my first time!), and workshops on leadership and social entrepreneurship. I did lead a session on situational leadership-ish and while the participants gave me very positive feedback, I found it hard to talk about such a big topic in a short amount of time.
Perhaps the most rewarding teaching moments for me came during our Blacksburg group project planning sessions. We trainers were given a curriculum and gradual assignments for participants to complete over a rough timeline. These assignments were all part of the final project plan they needed to submit at the end of the program in order to get seed funds to implement their project back in Saudi. The curriculum was all based on the USAID project management approach utilizing the logical framework. Since I had no experience with this specific framework, this was a great opportunity for me to learn something new and do further research. That being said, we were also encouraged to present the material in our own way to help students understand.
Armed with countless resources on social entrepreneurship, the theory of change, the social business model, and examples of successful social enterprises projects from my time in Manila, I was pumped to share these with my unicorns. I presented finished PowerPoint social enterprise pitches and prototypes from their Filipino peers to show that it’s best to start small before scaling up. I could see the positive impact this had in the Saudis facial expressions, nonverbal cues, and then in their articulated comments. It seemed fitting that these examples came from the Philippines, a country from which many service workers come to Saudi Arabia and are often looked down upon.
The SYLEP partnership with Impact Hub DC also added to the overarching theme of social impact. “Part innovation lab, part business incubator, part community center, part coworking space, Impact Hubs are where change goes to work.” The DC location hosted our SYLEP group several times for workshops on personal branding, public speaking, design thinking, digital storytelling, and pitch practices. It was obvious to me that the most beneficial activities for the SYLEP participants were the networking events held in the evening and at breakfast. Some of them shared that they were nervous or didn’t know what to say to the other professionals at these events. I pushed, giving them a three-sentence intro, and then told them to come back and tell me how it went. Imagine their own surprise when they returned to me with a handful of business cards! It was cool that I was even able to get three of my friends to attend these events and meet our SYLEPers 🙂
Before we all knew it, the first week in DC was a wrap and Team Unicorn was off to the mountains of Blacksburg, Virginia! I had prepped the group with information about Virginia and about their respective host families – as you might expect, the latter was what they were most excited/most anxious about. Based on their submitted preferences, female unicorns were assigned to homestays in pairs and the three males were sent off to a mountain homestay altogether.
They spent two days and two nights with their host families and though I needed to check on them via text a few times during the weekend, our Blacksburg Unicorns WhatsApp group was overflowing with photos and positive experiences. I was so, so happy and thankful that they were having a great time with their American hosts. I remember having a hard time containing my emotions as I read the excited updates coming in over the weekend. I was really proud at the way these everyday Americans had welcome these young Saudis into their homes and treated them as their own children. In particular, I loved hearing about their experiences with living with pets (dogs!) as dogs are rarely kept as pets in Saudi. Seeing the photos and videos of dog interactions was priceless – especially after we had all worked on petting dogs around DC as practice for the homestay. A few even rode horses at their homestay farm!
Following the homestay weekend, we all met back up at our hotel in Blacksburg across from the Virginia Tech campus. We were greeted with VT Hokie goodie bags and got a big welcome from the VT office coordinating our week in town. Thanks to those stick-on VT smartphone cardholders we got, I can gladly report that our group experienced a reduction in lost hotel room keys! Later that night, I invited interested participants to my larger than life ADA-size room for a Game of Thrones premiere party. FYI: It doesn’t matter where you’re from, people around the world are wild about GoT!
The week in Blacksburg was filled with Appalachian culture, professional development workshops on servant leadership, resume writing, interviewing skills, mock interviews (these were a big hit!), campus tours, Clifton Strengths, and project planning. I was tasked with fitting in two more project planning sessions for them to develop more facets of their social change projects and boy, was this hard! However, the group was flexible so when I knew they were too tired to have a session, I’d reschedule it or negotiate a better time with them as long as their relevant assignments were turned in. We went bowling and laser tagging (well, they did, I watched!), participated in a business etiquette dinner, and ate out at local restaurants in the evening. These dinners were always a treat because they really enabled the group to bond as at the end of each dinner, we were all gathered around one end of the table talking about Saudi and American cultures.
In my opinion, Team Unicorn enjoyed the last two days of community visits and volunteering the most. These experiences really allowed them to get a taste of life in Appalachian Virginia and that of rural America in general. In the Roanoke area, participants toured a women’s center, a Rescue Mission that served as a shelter, and a free clinic that happened to have a large endowment and very generous donors. The visits gave them the chance to compare and contrast social challenges and responses in both the US and Saudi Arabia and what might be learned from the people they interacted with.
On the last day, we headed to Plenty! Farm, a co-op farm and food bank in Floyd. There, the group enjoyed working and harvesting onions, garlic, rosemary, and other veggies there on the farm to provide to the local food bank. They volunteered alongside other young Americans and it was heartwarming to see the friendships formed in just the course of a day. Our crew even helped make the vegan lunch we had together towards the end. I could truly see how much they appreciated being able to help the local Floyd community and many told me that they wished they could have volunteered more. A few weeks later, our visit was featured in the local Floyd newspaper. Read about it here!
We ended the week with a fun-filled Friday evening in downtown Floyd. As a famous stop on the Virginia Heritage Music Trail, downtown Floyd is THE place to be on a summer Friday night in southwestern Virginia. My group participants checked out local shops before meeting for a pizza dinner together. We all then headed over to the Floyd Country Store for their world-renowned (no, seriously) Friday Night Jamboree of bluegrass music. While we weren’t able to stay for the entire thing, I was happy the group got to experience this piece of American bluegrass culture. Naturally, when they asked attendees to shout out where they were from, I made sure one unicorn got up and said they came all the way from Saudi Arabia. Afterwards, they all rushed to turn parts of their project proposal into me and we had a surprise birthday party on the hotel deck for one unicorn family member.
En route back to the DC area the next day, we made a pit stop at the Legacy International headquarters in Bedford. Legacy’s founder, J.E. Rash, graciously welcomed us into his home with tea, coffee, and a delicious spread. Some of Team Unicorn might have been tired but I know they appreciated being asked about their SYLEP experiences and getting the chance to provide feedback in order to improve next year’s program. I know it sounds corny but I think we all left grateful and mindful of the positive impacts we can still make in this world.
The final week of the program mainly consisted of the last few project planning sessions and finalizing the project proposals. Once the Unicorn participants had submitted their proposals to me, they were to meet with my Legacy colleagues to discuss their project in order to get the seed funding. While I was managing the proposal substance, feasibility, prep, and resource procurement, I was extremely fortunate to have two people supporting me on Team Unicorn. Gabby, our designated American university student Cultural Ambassador, and Carlos, our Legacy intern who was a Cultural Ambassador with the Blacksburg group last year, were instrumental in shaping the unicorns’ SYLEP experience. Gabby befriended all of them like “it ain’t no thang”, played her guitar for the group, got them from Point A to Point B when I couldn’t walk with them, and revised their English where needed in their project proposals. Carlos lent his previous SYLEP expertise in project branding, shared his jokes, and gave us all loads of information about the Virginia Tech Hokie experience. I couldn’t have made it without them!
I am thrilled to say that the group wowed my colleagues with their thorough project proposals, preparedness, and creativity. As I watched from the crowd, all did an incredible job of pitching their projects to a panel of judges on the final day. They each put a unique spin on their pitch idea and grabbed the audience’s attention with their opening lines. I was so immensely proud of them for all of the work they had done and how far they’d come, whether they’d realized it or not. Two unicorns were even presented with special awards by the judges. Still, the best part of that final day was watching them clap for and support one another as they took to the stage in front of their peers. Just as before, I could barely keep up with the exuberant WhatsApp messages flowing among them.
In the wake of all I’d read about Saudi Arabia in the Western media and on Al Jazeera, the research I did prior to the program, and all the ribbing I gave to my Saudi unicorns for often being late, working with them as part of SYLEP – even through the broken foot – was easily one of the best things I have ever done. Every day, I was impressed by their forward thinking, optimism, determination, curiosity, senses of humor, interest in the world, and willingness to challenge me. Every day, I learned something new from them – whether it was their perspective on fashion, animals, the environment, young Saudis, Trump, peace in the Middle East, or yes, American culture and society. They never ceased to captivate me with their stories and photos from home. I will say that one participant did succeed in embarrassing me when he told me that he showed his dad my Chamillionaire Ridin’ Dirty video of me on the scooter rolling through the Virginia Tech campus! Now even months after the end of the US portion of the program, I am still learning from my unicorns in ways I never expected. And for that, I’m eternally grateful.
Looking back, I first realized Team Unicorn was going to rock it interpersonally twice during the initial week. 1) The day after I broke my foot. The unicorns and some other SYLEPs came up to my hotel room with a dozen yellow roses, a big balloon, and of course, a unicorn greeting card. It was only a few days into the program but everyone gathered around me and did the unicorn pose in photos. I was so touched and shocked that I thought my heart would burst! 2) At our group outdoor movie adventure in DC. Overall, I’m beyond confident that they were all bored by the movie outside of Snapchatting their American experience and hitting up the food trucks, BUT I did not view it as a failure due to the teambuilding that went on. As we arrived early, many dispersed to nearby locales to pick up food. One cluster brought back ice cream, candy, bowls, and spoons for the entire group to have an ice cream party.
Some time during the first week of the program, the youngest SYLEP participant – also a unicorn – called me “Mom”. Well, I wasn’t having that and chastised him, explaining, “I could never replace your own mother back in Saudi and that’s not really my role here anyway.” His response? At the next morning check-in, I got a tap on the shoulder and a “Hey, Boss.” In the end, I must admit, the 12 do feel like my adopted Saudi children so maybe he was right after all. Oh and in case you were wondering, there were lots of tears all around on departure day, from me included.