Developing International Leaders Through A University-Community Partnership

Under the directorship of CoreCollaborative International’s Dr. Jennifer Jones-Wiley, James Madison University hosted the U.S. Department of State-funded Youth Ambassadors program, a unique collaboration between the university and multiple partners within the surrounding community. This type of project highlights CCI’s capacity to be effective in complex, multi-stakeholder systems.  Administered through the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, together with World Learning, the grant enabled 23 high school students from four Latin American countries to live and learn for two weeks within the James Madison University (JMU) community in Harrisonburg, VA. The initiative was an intricate one to carry off as its collaborators were numerous, including multiple university units as well as local businesses, host families, and the high school. 

Designed to facilitate understanding and interaction between youth from Latin America and the U.S., Youth Ambassadors (YA) provides service and leadership development opportunities for its participants. According to its website, the program “brings together high school students and adult mentors from across the Western Hemisphere to promote mutual understanding, increase leadership skills, and prepare youth to make a difference in their communities.” Participants come away from the program with a strong sense of civic responsibility, a commitment to community development, and an awareness of global issues. The program prides itself on the relationships it fosters among youth from different ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds, which lead to the promotion of understanding, respect, and collaboration between the U.S. and its Western Hemisphere partners.

2019’s YA was hosted by JMU’s Center for Global Engagement (CGE). Drawing on its prior experiences facilitating exchange as well as research findings, CGE founded YA on best practices for intercultural exchange. The program was designed to look holistically at who each participant was as they entered the exchange and to take into account how participants, in all their multifaceted selves, interacted with the learning environment. Structured to support participants’ needs for belonging and connection as they arrived in an unfamiliar environment, program activities created a shared sense of team and connection with host families and other participants. In addition to supporting participant needs, sessions for meaning-making and skill development were included in the program so that they were able to return home prepared to engage in their own communities.

Opportunities for academic growth were provided through seminars at JMU in the focus areas of leadership development, environmental protection, and social entrepreneurship. Participants also worked on the development of intercultural awareness capacities. They were given tools and structures to facilitate reflection, which maximized their learning and created long-lasting meaning from their experiences. Using journals to record their reflections, participants had daily debriefings as well as an end-of-program reflection session. To ensure a high quality of experience, an assessment strategy was built into the program, using the Beliefs, Events, and Values Inventory (BEVI) assessment tool

YA participants moved beyond the campus with activities located within the local Harrisonburg community. Host families provided the bedrock of community support for the students. 18 host families were recruited with attention to methods for facilitating positive cultural exchange. All families were asked to participate in a seminar covering the logistical aspects as well as the intercultural framework needed for successful exchange. The seminar also provided families with an opportunity to know one another and be part of a larger, supportive community. 

Community service projects and excursions reinforced the students’ learning opportunities. YA participants experienced the subthemes of environmental protection and social entrepreneurship through visits with multiple local partners, including an organic vegetable farm, an arboretum, a national forest, maker spaces, and sites for sustainable food production. Volunteer activities took place at local non-profits focused on activities and issues including urban gardening, green transportation, and alternative energy choices. A workshop from leaders and students at JMU’s X-Labs also challenged students to investigate and solve real-world problems. The YA participants were accompanied by adult mentors, who were given programming of their own, in the form of an X-Lab professional development seminar, and a train-the-trainer session on facilitating ethical reasoning in young people.

During their visit in Harrisonburg, Youth Ambassadors also partnered twice with the local high school which, with 50 languages spoken, is remarkably diverse. Ambassadors visited the high school first for a dialogue session with students from the Spanish Club. Later, they came back to shadow those same peers for a half-day American high school experience. These opportunities gave YA participants a glimpse into the approaches to education, some different and some similar, between their homes and the host community.

Given all the ways in which JMU and Harrisonburg came together for this program, 2019’s Youth Ambassadors program made for a true community-wide experience. Hosting the program in Harrisonburg highlighted the community’s commitment to the development of youth leadership and civic engagement, environmental sustainability, and mindful entrepreneurship. 

The Youth Ambassadors program was, according to Jones-Wiley, a very positive, super-high-touch experience for its 23 participants. She reported receiving many thank-you letters and follow-ups from the students after they completed the program, many of whom sought further study in U.S. institutions. Each of the community partners was also happy with the experience. The host families were impressed by the level of support they received: they knew what to expect, and where to go for answers to their problems, thus avoiding any incidents that might otherwise easily happen when cultures and generations come together. Leadership at the local high school was also very satisfied with the outcomes, not only for the visitors and U.S. peers to meet counterparts from their home countries but also for the U.S. students to see a State Department program in action. And finally, the funder, the State Department, was very pleased with the results, to the point of wanting JMU to keep running the program in future years. Unfortunately, COVID interfered with that plan, and the program was suspended for a time. 

This program – incorporating as it did so many partners across the university and local community – is a kind of showcase for the complex, multi-stakeholder learning experience design that CoreCollaborative International is known for. The CCI team is skilled at identifying and utilizing the strengths of multiple collaborators towards the common goal of transformative learning – and not just for the targeted learner, but for all who are involved. Contact the CCI team to explore how we can help you achieve this kind of learning at your own organization.

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