Blog Post

Alumni Engagement: A Pathway for Continued Global Learning Opportunities

Authored by Rawan Nasir, Stevens Initiative

Adem (left), presents on a panel about the lasting impact of virtual exchange.

Through our grantmaking, we’ve seen the impact that virtual exchange programs have on the lives of the young people who participate in them. But what about a young person’s engagement with virtual exchange and global learning opportunities once their program ends? For virtual exchange implementers across the globe, alumni engagement is a key topic of consideration and can be viewed as the pathway for a young person’s sustained involvement in cross-cultural learning opportunities.

To understand young people’s motivation to continue engaging in opportunities specifically designed for virtual exchange alumni, we interviewed three Alumni Fellows who participated in the Stevens Initiative Alumni Fellowship in 2022. Adem Oumeddour, a freelance creative from Algeria and alumnus of World Learning’s The Experiment Digital; Cassandra Pantel, a hospitality professional and alumna of IREX’s Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge; and Maryam Al-Fakhrey, an architect from Iraq and alumna of IREX’s Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge, share their motivations, expectations, and takeaways from alumni engagement opportunities and programming.

You’ve participated in a virtual exchange program that surely had a positive impact on you as a young person. After completing your program, what motivated you to look for ways to engage in alumni opportunities?

Adem Oumeddour: I met many talented people from around the world during my experience in World Learning’s The Experiment Digital. It was thrilling to be able to continue this journey of both learning and exchange with people from different cultures and backgrounds by participating in alumni opportunities.

Cassandra Pantel: After my virtual exchange program, I was looking for new ways to interact with people outside of my culture and country. The Stevens Initiative Alumni Fellowship seemed like a great opportunity to meet new people and make a difference, without too much time required. I am always motivated to learn new things and believe in the impact that cultural exchanges can have on young people.

Maryam Al-Fakhrey: Living in Mosul, Iraq, a previously closed city that was under conflict for three years without access to the internet, it was very hard to interact with people from different cultural backgrounds. Participating in virtual exchange programs provided me with the chance to find a network of ambitious young people with whom I can collaborate to leave an impact on our communities. Alumni opportunities gave me a chance to continue this work after the end of my virtual exchange program.

As a Stevens Initiative Alumni Fellow, how are you leveraging the skills you gained throughout the Fellowship in your professional life and how have you applied what you have learned to continue to make a difference in your community?

Adem: As a freelance creative, the communication and collaboration skills that I acquired throughout the Stevens Initiative Alumni Fellowship have allowed my business to expand. I have been able to develop my business by understanding my client’s needs to be able to provide the best service possible, which has allowed me to consistently exceed their expectations.  Last April, I was called on by my old company to work as a consultant in visual identity creation. My mission was to help organize their branding projects and guide the creative team to establish a more efficient system for handling these different projects. I reflected on the leadership activities from the Fellowship and was able to lead the team successfully.

Cassandra: Communication across cultures is something that is very important in my day-to-day professional life. Customers from all over the world and people with different cultural norms than myself visit the liquor store I manage. Learning and discovering more about cultures during the Fellowship has allowed me to have a better appreciation for my customers and the differences between us, so that I am better able to help them. I try to do my part to help them out if I can. In my work teaching culinary students this past semester, I included educational moments that connected culture with the beer, wine, spirits, coffee, and tea we were discussing. I realized that just because it is a tasting-centered class doesn’t mean that is all that can be learned, and my students are now exposed to a bit of culture in my class!

Maryam: As an architect, I constantly engage with entrepreneurs, decision makers, and stakeholders in my work. Leveraging the communication skills I practiced over the yearlong Fellowship program has been key for me to lead effective conversations and grow my professional network. Learning about leadership through the various Fellowship exercises empowered me to become more aware of the tools I can use to be a good leader. I learned to listen to people from my community, empathizing with their problems, and taking the lead to solve them. A concrete example of this is the international conference at Mosul University in which I participated twice as a lecturer, advocating for the implementation of initiatives that address UN Sustainable Development Goals and the importance of developing bottom-up approaches to solve global environmental issues.

The Fellowship is a yearlong opportunity that demands quite a bit of commitment. As a young person with so much going on in your life, what made it worth it?

Adem: The environment, built on respect and openness, made it easy to enjoy the program. The curriculum topics and the opportunity to develop and execute a community project made the yearlong experience very enjoyable and exciting.

Cassandra: The camaraderie that I gained from working so closely with the other 12 Fellows was very fulfilling. While the community project was quite the time commitment, the sense of purpose that it brought and the impact that it had on the students we engaged made it well worth all the effort.

Maryam: Having the chance to create a community service project with the goal of creating change in collaboration with other Fellows who embrace the same values and support the same causes was an invaluable opportunity. It helped me develop many skills, broaden my mind, and gain more experience in the social entrepreneurship domain.

What advice would you give to virtual exchange alumni looking to invest their time to participate in alumni activities?

Adem: A very simple piece of advice to virtual exchange alumni is to take advantage of the opportunities available to you. If you are starting off in a new program, live the experience fully and enjoy it. Be open to new ideas and knowledge and make real human connections.

Cassandra: There are many different alumni programs and opportunities out there, it is just about finding the one that is right for you. Look at these opportunities as either a way to grow in a field you are already familiar with or branch out and learn from those around you.

Maryam: Participating in alumni activities will open your mind to new perspectives and you will become more ready to welcome new ideas that you might not have explored during your initial virtual exchange experience. You will also become more comfortable with the idea that there is always something new to learn from others, even if you might not share the same background or ideas as them.

What do you think program implementers should keep in mind when developing these activities to encourage more alumni to participate?

Adem: Implementers can motivate alumni to continue the beautiful journey they embarked on during their virtual exchange by showcasing the human side to the experience. In my opinion, the Fellowship’s in-person component was very exciting and incentives like this can encourage alumni to participate.

Cassandra: I think it is important for program implementers to keep in mind that working across many time zones and countries can make scheduling difficult. Building alumni programming with a mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities is a must. It is also important to allow for flexibility, keeping in mind that the schedules and workload of young people change frequently. 

Maryam: Understanding how alumni from diverse cultural backgrounds, and those who come from historically marginalized communities can be quite challenging for program implementers. It can be so hard for those alumni to engage with others without feeling self-conscious or isolating themselves. As a former internally displaced person (IDP), my journey as a Fellow was incredibly empowering due to the conversations I participated in during the sessions. The session moderators created an atmosphere of familiarity and understanding, which made me feel supported and accepted. Thanks to this environment, I was able to open up and share my opinions, even though expressing my emotions in this manner wasn’t always easy for me.

The Stevens Initiative Alumni Fellowship is supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

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