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Mandela Washington Fellows.

Today is Mandela Day. Folks are celebrating this amazing man around the world. Hearing and seeing these celebrations is inspiring me to reflect on an experience I had a little less than a month ago. The power and wisdom that I felt on that day and with those fellows left memories and an impact on me that feels like it was only yesterday that I met all of them. I wish that they would say the same.

“In November 2009, the UN General Assembly declared July 18th ‘Nelson Mandela International Day‘ in recognition of the former South African President’s contribution to the culture of peace and freedom.”

It was an early Saturday morning, and if I was following doctor’s orders I probably would have been laying in bed somewhere, getting a ton of rest. But instead, I had made the trek to Blacksburg, back to my alma mater, to meet with a very special group of students. I was rolling down University City Boulevard to make it to the LCI and meet with some students who had just arrived to Virginia Tech from many other countries.

A few weeks earlier, I got an e-mail from Virginia Tech’s Language and Culture Institute. Based on past presentations and the relationships I’ve forged with many of their staff members, I was honored that they were inviting me to come and present to a new program, a new set of students. In the past, I had worked with the Humphrey Scholars Program, but this time around it was a new group of students – the Mandela Washington Fellows.

I didn’t know much about the program, but I immediately began to do my research. The Mandela Washington Fellowship is an inspiring program and an initiative by President Obama. The young students in this program are inspiring students and leaders in their fields from from Africa. It was started 2 years ago and is the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) that empowers young people through academic coursework, leadership training, and networking. That’s why they were calling me in.

After working out some logistics – around the fact that I have been hospitalized for more than a third of the calendar days so far this year – we found a date that worked well for the fellows, shortly after their arrival to campus. The theme for their work that week was personal ethics and social change. You bet that my mental wheels immediately began turning. They were giving me two hours to work with the students and pretty much free reign. Intimidating, yes, but even more so: exciting! What an opportunity to make an impression on folks and connect with some people who are doing such great work.
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The 25 fellows were joined by several from the current cohort of Humphrey Fellows. My talk intentionally focused on the fact that social change can, too, come in small ways. It doesn’t always have to be large, orchestrated, coordinated, leader-driven movements that cause social change. That’s how I view social change in my every day life. My goal of meeting 1 new person everyday is it’s own form of daily practicing inclusion in my own communities.

Their professional experience ranged from working in disability rights and being directors of major programs to being a student activist and working with NGOs to being a youth mentor or a medical translator. As I do with most smaller-group presentations like this, I took the time and went around the room to ask every single student where they were from and what kind of work they were doing. It was beautiful to see the connections that began to be made not only between me and the fellows, but between some of the fellows who were, really, only just meeting each other. The road began to be paved for some serious change-making.

I informed them of my life’s motto – that life is all about what you have done for other people. And I spoke on how HESONWHEELS primarily focuses on social advocacy, inclusion, and disability. In fact, some of the fellows had never had direct interaction with people with disabilities. Others listed “disability advocate” as their primary role in the work they are doing – so the conversations we had even after the presentation were also lively and eye-opening. That’s the bread and butter of a good talk, I believe – is if the group is a manageable size and you can have time at the end for a great Q&A that usually turns into more of a conversation and revelations for everyone in the room. It’s a beautiful experience.

Finally, I reminded the fellows that even though they had been transplanted to this new country and were in a completely new environment, to be sure to open themselves up to the potential of community. Community is not only the name of one of my favorite books, but it’s also one of my favorite aspects of the human experience, especially when it’s “done right.” I was hoping that, since it was so early in their six week program, this mindset would position them to fully experience all that Virginia Tech and, frankly, the United States has to offer.

I have continued to be connected with many of the fellows, via e-mail, in the weeks since that wonderful Saturday morning. I hope these connections continue and that their great work continues as they follow their passions and help the people they care about the most. That is what each of us should be doing everyday, through a lens of social advocacy and justice. It’s what I do, and it’s why I believe we can each play a part – big or small – in making the world a better place through service.

Edit: I also wanted to share blogs that 2 of the fellows have penned since I met with them. 

First, “The wound is the place where the light enters you- Rumi” by Amel Belay Yimer .

And, also, “Leaving your mental door open equals learning…” by Lusungu Kalanga.