The students hiking a hill while exploring the campus ground of the University of Connecticut.
YSEALI students taking a picture at the University of Connecticut’s entrance sign.
The 21 Asean youth delegates wearing their traditional clothes at the programme’s closing dinner.

TEN Malaysian students were chosen to join the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) academic fellowship programme in the United States recenty.

A fully-sponsored event initiated by the 44th US president Barack Obama in 2013 for youths aged 18 to 25, the programme seeks to build the leadership capabilities of youths in the region, strengthen ties between the US and Southeast Asia, and nurture an Asean community.

The students joined their peers from the Philippines, Thailand, Brunei, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to form the programme’s Fall Cohort, which had activities in the states of Hawaii, Nebraska, Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts.

Each student had the opportunity to study in an American university for a period of five weeks to learn about three chosen topics, which are Civic Engagement, Social Entrepreneurship, and Economic Development and Environmental Issues.

With close collaboration between the selected universities and the US government, the programme was well spread out to cater to three main objectives: to cultivate leadership skills, immerse participants in American cultural history and, most importantly, to practice and gain knowledge about the selected theme.

This diversified the programme into an array of lectures, incubator workshops, travelling, team-building and also volunteering activities each week.

“As one of the participants, I find this an interesting combination of learning the values and visions of Asean and its future potential with our different languages and contrasting cultures, while at the same time adapting to the fish-out-of-water experience of living in America for five weeks,” said Malaysian participant Marissa Asfirah Saiful Lizan.

She highlighted that the valuable merit of the programme lies in its diversity and common denominator of not only learning together, but also learning from one another.

“There are two cohorts each year, the Spring Intake in March and the Fall Intake in September. The latest cohort had 10 Malaysians, divided into five different states in America.

“I was in the Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development theme in the University of Connecticut,” she said.

The accounting student from Yayasan Pendidikan Cheras (YPC) International College and her group spent the majority of their time on campus with road trips to Boston and Hartford over the weekend amidst classes and volunteering squeezed in with visits to Ivy League universities, such as Harvard and Yale University.

“Programme participants were also granted access to an online course by the University of Peace, a university endorsed by the United Nations. Our time at the University of Connecticut concluded with a pitch presentation of our individual projects,” said Marissa.

Apart from studies and related activities, the students also travelled to New Haven, New York, Philadelphia and to Washington D.C. to visit cultural and educational sites to further their understanding of the US.

“We were given the opportunity to meet and have insightful discussions with entrepreneurs, politicians, State Department officials, meet the Malaysian ambassador, along with the other Malaysian delegates under the programme. The closing session comprised feedbacks, reflective speeches and an opportunity to meet and network with other YSEALI fellows.

“There were many pinch-me moments throughout this programme, which will forever be home to so many beautiful memories,” said Marissa.

For her, it was a priceless opportunity to not only be recognised and be a part of the YSEALI alumni, but also an opportunity to represent Malaysia.

“I urge university students to take a shot and apply for the programme. It is an opportunity to fail, learn and grow within a safe space in a new country, and travelling and volunteering with people from different countries. This experience will always serve as a constant reminder that there is still so much out there to learn and experience,” she said.

Marissa has since graduated from YPC International College and is now attached with PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

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