SYLEP 2018: Another Summer with Saudi Arabia’s Young Leaders of Today

If you’ve read anything about Saudi Arabia in the news over the past month, it likely hasn’t been good. At the same time, while this blog post is coming three months late, I’d like to share a different perspective of KSA – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – one that is brimming with potential, passion, perseverance, and positivity.


I spent the majority of July as a trainer and facilitator on the Saudi Young Leaders Exchange Program (SYLEP), an initiative co-sponsored by the US Embassy in Riyadh and Legacy International, a 40-year-old NGO based in Virginia. This was not my first time around the block. I also served as a trainer during the summer 2017 session, in which I spectacularly fell off the trapeze and broke my foot four days into the three week program. In my mind, I was already winning at SYLEP staffing simply for being on two feet this time!

Although being a returning trainer was beneficial in some ways, each SYLEP group of 30+ 21-26-year-old Saudi leaders is different and comes with a unique set of personalities, feelings, interests, expectations, and dynamics. Thus, it’s imperative that we as a staff customize a portion of our approach to fit them. This summer, I took my small group of 12 program participants to Pittsburgh for their city immersion week, which was a huge contrast to my week with participants at Virginia Tech in rural southwestern Virginia last year. But did my group get to be the Unicorns again? (Check out my blog post “Summering with Saudis” for some background on that.) You can bet your bottom dollar they did. Let’s just say the Unicorns theme was in full force with my group embracing their mascot.


One of the biggest changes I experienced this summer was the number of male program participants in my group. Last summer, men made up less than a third of the group while this time they constituted half of my Pittsburgh dozen. Combined with a plethora of personalities, the group dynamic was at times way more outgoing that my Blacksburg group and at times, more serious. I loved the variety all the same and I watched as unexpected friendships formed between them. I strongly encourage group bonding and always said, “The more you put into the experience, the more you’ll get out of it.”


I mixed successful team building activities from last year with new ones this year. After several said they wanted to improve their public speaking skills, I challenged my Unicorns by asking them to practice these skills via answering random questions in front of the group. This not only brought the group closer together but also forced them to support one another when a few of them got stuck. Since each contributed something “quintessentially theirsto the group, each of them voted on group superlatives I created and I handed out Unicorn Awards at the end of the program.

Yes, I spent the majority of my time with my smaller Pittsburgh group. However, that is not to say I wasn’t engaging with the rest of the 20ish participants that ventured to Chicago and Austin for their city immersion weeks. I was lucky enough to meet the group flying in from Jeddah at Dulles Airport and they were impeccably organized by their designated city leader. They had their flag and sign and I snapped pics of them with the SYLEP sign I also brought. Exciting! Rooms were checked into, pizza was eaten, basic information was disseminated, and all of them were freed early to go to bed and rest up for the next three big weeks of programming ahead.

The first week consisted of a lot of overall group bonding around Washington, D.C. We held a few orientations, including one on American culture and demographics today, took them on a city tour of the monuments at night, visited the Kennedy Center – which coincidentally featured some nice views of the Saudi embassy, and led them to the US Capitol for a tour. I distinctly remember a conversation with a few of the Saudi participants at the front of the bus after the monument tour. When another trainer asked US history trivia questions, one of them was impressive in his knowledge of American presidents and politics and we discussed citizens’ knowledge of their own civics and government. I do know that a ton of high school US history suddenly came back to me that evening.


As the first week in our nation’s capital moved along, SYLEP 2018 packed even more punch. A former SYLEP trainer returned to give a Design Thinking Workshop and I led a social entrepreneurship workshop before we visited Halcyon Incubator, an international, Georgetown-based initiative that brings together changemakers in art and social enterprises. A highlight for many was our trip to a Washington Mystics WNBA game. There, we were fortunate enough to meet up with the US State Department-sponsored TechGirls program, for 15-18-year-old girls from seven countries in the Middle East North Africa region. And we may or may not have made it onto the jumbotron at Capital One Arena. All of the shrieking and Snapchat photos around me told me that we did. Between the timeout and halftime entertainment, fan engagement, and photo opportunity on the court after the game, the event served as a fantastic cultural experience for all of our participants.


Not to be out done, the end of week one involved planning sessions for participants’ social change projects, an adaptive leadership training with coach Shoshanna Cogan, and city immersion nights out in small groups. I still have memories of the night out last year of me hopping around on my pre-knee walker crutches. The Unicorns were great sports about it and even created their own ice cream party back then. Almost like it was destiny, our group needed to change plans at the last minute and I rallied the troops to go get Safeway groceries for a Potomac River-side picnic along the Georgetown Waterfront. I especially enjoyed taking in the sunset with them and of course, snapping lots of pics with the group and the Party City unicorn props I “just happened” to bring along. The long passionate discussions over dinner continued this summer and they remain one of my favorite aspects of getting to know my Saudi participants.

Due to the fact that the core themes of this year’s program revolved about community service, peacebuilding, tolerance, and conflict resolution, we had additional new activities for participants to engage in. We visited the Earth Conservation Corps – and held birds of prey there!, took an Anacostia River environmental boat tour, listened to a panel speak on youth engagement and volunteering, and hosted a professional networking event for SYLEP participants at the Logan Exchange coworking space. In light of many of our participants being from the medical field, I successfully recruited one of my colleagues from the International Scholar Laureate Program, a doctor in DC, to come speak with them. As for me, not being stuck on the couch with my broken foot this time was a breath of fresh air! And of course, I loved seeing my friend interacting and learning with our admirable Saudi young leaders, too.


Perhaps the most significant change to our SYLEP schedule this summer was the inclusion of the LivingSideBySide Dialogue Retreat at Sweet Briar College. Sweet Briar is a small all women’s college nestled in the foothills of southwestern Virginia and despite growing up in the Commonwealth of Virginia, this would be my first visit there. Like many Virginia universities, it has an irresistible southern colonial charm represented by its brick buildings and white columns. Everyone particularly relished the chance to be closer to nature with deer roaming around the extensive campus grounds at all times. Outside of the chance to explore the surrounding grounds, the Saudis and their American cultural ambassadors participated in workshops on conflict management and resolution and listened to a panel of religious leaders representing four different faiths. Personally, my favorite part of our time at Sweet Briar was when one of my Unicorns returned to us from a conference in Ohio and our group welcomed her back with piano, song, and the ever-useful unicorn props.


Following the rural Virginia retreat, everyone reboarded the bus to head to their respective immersion cities. Though we made it to Pittsburgh too late to experience the now-famous Picklesburgh pickle festival, a few participants were still able to attend with their host families during their weekend homestay. While the Saudis were paired with local Pittsburgh families for the weekend, I also took advantage of being in a new city by checking out places like the Andy Warhol Museum, Point State Park where three rivers meet, and the Heinz History Center. Once again, I grew emotional as I heard from the Saudis about their homestay experiences and how their American families truly made them feel at home in our country. To me, this is the power of people-to-people, grassroots international exchange, and citizen diplomacy.

Our small group’s time in Pittsburgh flew by. We chowed down on Middle Eastern food at the colorful Salem’s Middle Eastern Market and Grocery. We chowed down some more on burgers and milkshakes at the popular Pittsburgh eatery, Burgatory. Naturally, the culinary experience would not have been complete without a late night trip to Primanti Brothers for the famous roast beef and french fry hoagie. We had slurpees, too.


To be sure, Pittsburgh wasn’t all about the food. Oh wait, we did help pack over 1,500 boxes of food for the elderly at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank! We also put together packages of medical supplies to be shipped internationally through NPO Global Links. Our partner, Global Pittsburgh, did an excellent job of arranging leadership sessions at Coro Pittsburgh and the beautiful Chatham University while setting up an informal networking event with international professionals and an awesome former SYLEP cultural ambassador at a local Uzbek restaurant. Our group thoroughly enjoyed the visit to the inspiring Manchester Craftsman’s Guild (Google it, really) where we had lunch prepared by their chefs in training and spontaneously met the founder and president of the entire organization. Favorite moments of mine in Pittsburgh include, but are not limited to, a group excursion to a karaoke box, seeing some participants rocking out to music with their Uber driver in a bright blue Jeep Wrangler, and taking some of the group to see the end of a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game – a very American experience for them!


With all of that in about a week, it’s no wonder my dozen Unicorns were tuckered out. Still, they were pumped to get back to DC/Northern Virginia to see the rest of their friends in the Chicago and Austin groups. The final few days of SYLEP back in Arlington were filled with a monitoring and evaluation workshop, the completion of participants’ social change project proposals, and final pitch competition preparation. I was very much privileged to see each of their project plans come together: their vision in turn motivated me to do better in my own spheres of influence.

The program wrapped up with the pitch competition at local DC haunt, Busboys and Poets – another first for me – and dinner at a Lebanese restaurant where everyone took the time to soak up the last hours of SYLEP 2018 with all of them together in one place. I spent the last evening writing cards for my Unicorns with the occasional interruptions of “yearbook signing requests” and tearful goodbyes and gift exchanges. I awoke the next morning around 3am to say goodbye to the first departure group heading to Chicago for Lollapalooza, their next American adventure of choice. I must say, those Super Shuttle drivers were champs in accommodating our early group of 14!

Just as it was for me last year, it was an emotional, meaningful closure of our experience together and I found myself learning more from them than they surely did from me. Every single day brought new ways of thinking, changing perspectives, openmindedness, curiosity, enthusiasm, evolving relationships, and joy. Again, I felt like the proud aunt – not mom as they sometimes called me (yes, again!) – during the pitch competition seeing all of them shine on stage sharing their stories and ideas with us. I genuinely saw transformation in many of these Saudis. My hope is that even more people see this same rising potential in Saudi Arabia that I have been blessed to witness the past two summers. KSA’s Vision 2030 is here and now. SYLEP participant projects are tackling everything from a lack of reading to mental health issues to refugees to traffic safety to hereditary blood diseases to youth unemployment. These young people are only getting started on their journey to make a difference. Saudi Arabia is filled with ambitious, compassionate, motivated, and empathetic young leaders who strive daily to shape positive impact in their communities. I saw a flash of these things each second I spent with them. Are you ready to?

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