The One Young World Summit hosted by Pittsburgh two weeks ago, with 1,500 under-30 delegates from more than 183 countries, reminded me of my first year in America.
I was 17 when I was selected to be an exchange student as part of the Future Leaders Exchange program, which gave students from the former Soviet Union an opportunity to live with an American host family and attend a U.S. high school for a year. I came to a community in Wisconsin, to the small town of Chetek where I lived with a family of four, who owned a dairy farm, and went to Chetek High School as a senior.
Hello, triple culture shock!
You see, I come from a big city in Kazakhstan, the former capital of Almaty, with a population of almost 1.4 million. I didn't speak English well and it was my first trip abroad by myself.
Before I arrived in Wisconsin, FLEX put me through a rigorous orientation process. Trainings, readings, tutorials ... I plowed through books on "Things True and False About Americans" so relentlessly that by the time I left home, I knew them by heart. Yet I had so many questions: Will my host family understand what I say? Will I fail the courses in high school? Will they label me a communist? Will they think I'm strange?
Although I still do not know the answer to that last question, all these worries fell away. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened to me. Once I met my hosts and walked into their barn, I embarked on a journey of discovery and doing.
I met wonderful people who became friends and role models: Mrs. Sailor, my English teacher, encouraged me to try out for wrestling cheerleading. Mrs. Austin worked with me on speech-making in forensics. Mr. Munch believed I could work for NASA because I got good grades in calculus.
Because of programs like FLEX, which is sponsored by the U.S. State Department, journeys like mine become possible. The goal is to give "future leaders" cross-cultural and leadership skills so they might make lasting contributions to the world -- even as they teach others, exchange ideas, break down stereotypes and overcome differences.
The One Young World Summit in Pittsburgh was like a magnified FLEX program. It was a crash course in leadership and cross-cultural cooperation -- a year's worth of experience and inspiration packed into four days.
The inspiration emanated not only from the high-profile speakers, such as Bill Clinton, Muhammad Yunus, Bob Geldof and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. The delegates also were voices of reason, passion and action. Many already had accomplished remarkable things.
Meron Yemane Semedar is a youth leader of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights, which provides refugees with legal and career help. Catherine Kipsang built a social network to hold Kenyan politicians accountable. Asma Ataie helps manage an organization that provides Afghan women with microloans and educational opportunities. Sujit Lalwani spearheads an initiative to teach underprivileged children in India computer literacy and other subjects.
International news headlines came alive at the summit. Unadorned. Delegates asked questions or offered opinions on education, women's issues, business ethics, corporate responsibility, human rights, health, governance and sustainable development.
A young man from Turkey asked for advice on how to deal with a family member's arrest. A woman from Belarus asked how lawyers could help protect human rights activists in her country without being prosecuted themselves. A delegate from Brazil shamed the United States for being the richest country in the world while allowing its citizens to die from lack of health care. A woman from Turkey who lives in a border town shelled by Syrian forces a few days before the summit asked former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan why the United Nations was not doing more to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
Questions and comments flew in from all over the world. Sincere. Passionate. And pressing. How to make corporations more accountable? Is the Middle East ready for the Arab Spring? Who would be a better U.S. president for the world? How long will we have to wait until LGBTQ rights are universally accepted as human rights? And more and more ...
The delegates were told again and again that they will shape the future. Spencer West, a man with no legs who reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, told them: "There's no can't or won't, just how." NASA astronaut Ron Garan said, "The key is we. We have the technology to enable global collaboration. We need to coordinate universal efforts to make the world a better place. We can talk to people we'd never be able to talk to before ... We all can work together towards our common goals." But, he warned, "Don't look back and wonder what the world would have been if you really had tried to make a difference -- act now."
Pittsburgh regional high school students in the Youth Media Advocacy Project, a collaboration between Carlow University and Pittsburgh Student Voices, also were fully engaged as they reported on the summit. I helped share some of their work on a Post-Gazette blog and on social media as they wrote, filmed and recorded interviews with international delegates -- one even got an exclusive interview with Bob Geldoff. They couldn't get enough of the exciting, diverse and overwhelmingly new environment. Triple culture shock for them.
Sophie Belch, a junior at Riverview High School in Oakmont, found the One Young World Summit a thrilling place to exchange ideas and creative ways to solve problems. Among her memorable moments: "being less than 10 feet away from ... Kofi Annan during his talk on peaceful intervention, talking to a youth from the Maldives who is running for parliament in his country and getting his master's degree in international relations/ law, singing an African freedom song with members of the South African delegation on the final day of the summit after dinner, and sharing a conversation with people representing almost every continent in the world at the [Clemente Bridge] party."
In fact, Ms. Belch said, "Every moment at the conference was so special. It brought the entire world to my hometown and, consequently, my hometown was shared with the entire world. It was a place of listening, growth, mutual understanding and a desire to make your own part of the world better. ...
"When so many people from so many different cultural and social backgrounds come together, you expect chaos. But that was not the case here; the human spirit was alive, barriers were broken down and the voice of humanity spoke loud and clear. ...
"To an outsider looking in, one may think it was just a kind of an inspirational gathering; but it was truly much more than that. I can't speak for everyone, but I came away with a sense that these men and women were going to go above and beyond the things that their peers will aspire to do. In short, these delegates will be changing the world -- and fast!"
Mila Sanina, a social media coordinator for the Post-Gazette, recently co-published English translations of 101 short stories by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, titled "Bulgakov's Feuilleton" (email@example.com, 412-263-1731).