By Nazih Raychouni (YES 2014-2015, Lebanon, placed by AFS in Wichita, KS)
What are some of your biggest accomplishments since becoming an alumni of the YES program?
Throughout my academic and professional journey, I have been fortunate to receive various scholarships and participate in numerous leadership and development programs. I was awarded the prestigious USP-USAID scholarship, a comprehensive three-year scholarship that granted me admission to the American University of Beirut (AUB) to pursue a Bachelor's degree in nursing. In addition, I was honored to receive the Dr. Saad Hamdi AlZaim and Family Scholarship, which covered the fourth year of my undergraduate studies, further supporting my educational pursuits.
In recognition of my leadership potential, I was selected to represent Lebanon and the YES alumni chapter at the first regional English Access Microscholarship alumni event held in Jordan in January 2019. This invaluable experience equipped me with essential skills and insights into effective leadership and transformative change. Furthermore, I had the privilege to participate in the YES Gender Parity Specialists (YESGPS) workshop for global alumni, where I proudly represented the Lebanese YES alumni chapter in March 2019. During this workshop, I had the opportunity to address the current status of women and LGBTQ+ individuals in Lebanon, shed light on pertinent issues, and advocate for progress.
My commitment to personal and professional growth led my nomination by Amideast's country coordinator to attend the YES Virtual Alumni Leaders Training (VALT), a series of online training courses aimed at enhancing leadership, team-building, and project management skills. Through this program, I acquired valuable knowledge and strategies to strengthen alumni communities and foster positive change.
Recognizing my potential as a leader, I was elected president of the Lebanese YES Alumni Association in 2020, where I assumed the responsibility of driving initiatives and advancing the organization's mission. Additionally, I successfully obtained certification as a registered nurse from the Ministry of Health in Lebanon in December 2020 and became a member of the esteemed Lebanese Order of Nursing in 2021, further cementing my commitment to the nursing profession.
To expand my skillset, I secured a scholarship funded by Amideast and Coursera, enabling me to become a Certified Google Project Manager in 2021. This certification has equipped me with advanced project management competencies, enabling me to excel in complex and diverse work environments.
In 2022, I was selected as a RISE Scholarship Selector for Schmidt Futures and The Rhodes Trust, where I had the honor of participating in the rigorous process of choosing the 100 fortunate scholarship winners. This opportunity allowed me to contribute to the selection of exceptional individuals who possess the potential to make a positive impact on society.
Driven by my passion for education and advocacy, I launched an online series on social media focused on sex education, which gained widespread attention and garnered nearly a million views at the beginning of 2022. This initiative aimed to provide vital information and promote awareness in a critical area that is often overlooked or stigmatized.
Continuing my commitment to international collaboration, I was selected to participate in the first edition of the Iacocca Institute's Global Village on the Move in 2022, held in Kyrgyzstan. As part of a geographically diverse and cross-cultural team, we collaborated on a consulting project for an international client. Additionally, we undertook a Sustainable Development Goals challenge, further honing our leadership skills, immersing ourselves in local culture, and engaging with community leaders.
In recognition of my academic achievements and potential, I was awarded the MEPI-TLG scholarship in 2022 to pursue a graduate degree in Interdisciplinary Gender Studies at the Lebanese American University (LAU). This esteemed scholarship further underscores my dedication to studying and contributing to the field of gender studies.
I have had the privilege of contributing to the academic discourse on sex education by publishing a paper titled "Advocating for a Comprehensive Sex Education Program in Lebanon" in 2022. This publication highlights the importance of implementing a comprehensive sex education curriculum in Lebanon to address critical issues and promote healthy attitudes and behaviors. Furthermore, I had the honor of presenting this paper at the esteemed Tomorrow's Leader Symposium held in Egypt in 2023. This platform allowed me to share my research findings and engage in meaningful discussions with fellow scholars and professionals in the field.
Finally, I am honored to be selected as one of the Fulbright Foreign Student Program grantees for the upcoming academic year. Starting in Fall 2023, I will pursue a Master's degree in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies with a focus on Globalization and Social Change at Georgia State University (GSU). This program will provide me with a deep understanding of how globalization impacts women's & LGBTQ+ lives and the various strategies used to create social change.
What are some of your favorite memories from the YES program?
One of my cherished memories during my exchange program was my attempt to introduce my host family to a traditional Lebanese dish, Taboule. Despite having no prior experience in the kitchen, I was determined to prepare something Lebanese for them. The journey to find the ingredients remains etched in my mind, as my host father took me to various local shops until we finally gathered everything we needed. However, I struggled with cutting the parsley, and my host father kindly stepped in to help. Although the Taboule turned out to be less than perfect, my host family graciously complimented it, and as a naive 15-year-old, I believed their kind words. The following day, my host father returned home after having Taboule from a Lebanese restaurant. He looked me in the eye and humorously remarked, "you messed up a very good dish. I thought Lebanese food was bad," he said before bursting into laughter. Despite its imperfections, this memory remains one of my favorites, as it reminds me of the joy and laughter we shared together.
Another memory I am truly grateful for is the encouragement and support my host family provided to me to get involved in school and the community. Unlike back home, where I had not had the chance to be involved in extracurricular activities, my host family recognized the importance of exploration and community engagement. Their influence and encouragement to step out of my comfort zone led me to become involved and never settle for less, a lesson that has stayed with me ever since.
Being a part of the varsity swim team holds a special place in my heart. Throughout this experience, I learned valuable lessons in perseverance and resilience. In one particular meet, my goggles came off as the race began, leaving me with a choice: give up or keep swimming. I chose to keep swimming, finishing the laps without my goggles. Little did I know that this moment would later become a viral meme on Twitter, with a photographer capturing my struggle during the race. However, I never felt discouraged by it. Instead, I embraced it with a laugh and moved forward, even enjoying my brief moment of fame at school.
Another favorite memory from my exchange year revolves around the friendships I formed. From Prom and graduation to our shared outings, these friends made my exchange experience all the more enriching. What's even more remarkable is that, even after eight years, I am still connected with them today. An event I will never forget is when my friend and I used to go to Sonic and order tots to eat on our way back home from school. As simple as they were, they meant a lot to me. The DCOs (Departure and Country Orientation) were undoubtedly the highlight of the year. These three days, both before and after my departure, brought me together with like-minded individuals who were either about to embark on their exchange journey or had already experienced it. We shared our excitement, exchanged stories, and engaged in reflective discussions, creating a bond that I will never forget.
These memories, whether filled with laughter, challenges, or shared experiences, continue to hold a special place in my heart, reminding me of the transformative and unforgettable nature of my exchange year.
What are some of the ways you’ve stayed connected to fellow alumni since your exchange experience? What about your host family or friends?
In the age of social media, staying connected as an exchange student has been made easier and more accessible. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn have played a vital role in maintaining connections with fellow alumni. We create or join groups specific to our exchange program or school, enabling us to share updates, photos, and cherished memories. Additionally, video and voice calls have been indispensable in fostering meaningful connections with close friends and host family members. FaceTime and WhatsApp have been the go-to platforms, allowing us to engage in face-to-face conversations despite being physically distant. While our calls were not always scheduled due to everyone's busy lives, we cherished the hours spent chatting during these impromptu encounters. These virtual connections help bridge the geographical distance and make us feel closer to one another.
Additionally, the YES program offers numerous opportunities for alumni to connect, both locally and internationally. Alumni events and reunions serve as valuable platforms to reunite, exchange stories, and strengthen the bonds among participants. Attending such gatherings provides an excellent opportunity to reconnect with old friends and establish new connections, further enriching our network of support.
As I prepare for my Master's program at Georgia State University, I am already making plans to visit my host family and friends back in Kansas. The anticipation and excitement of this upcoming reunion further highlight the enduring connections forged during my exchange year.
How did the YES program impact you professionally? What about personally?
The YES program has had a significant impact on both my professional and personal development. Professionally, the program provided me with valuable opportunities to enhance my leadership skills, engage in community projects, and participate in specialized workshops. Through the program, I received scholarships, such as the USP-USAID scholarship, the Dr. Saad Hamdi AlZaim and Family Scholarship, and MEPI-TLG, which enabled me to pursue my bachelor's degree in nursing and later my graduate degree in Interdisciplinary Gender Studies. These educational opportunities have equipped me with the knowledge and expertise to contribute meaningfully to my field and advocate for important causes such as comprehensive sex education and gender equity.
Additionally, the YES program facilitated my participation in various leadership and development programs, such as the Virtual Alumni Leaders Training (VALT) and the RISE Scholarship Selector program. These experiences further honed my leadership, team-building, and project management skills, enabling me to make a positive impact in my communities and beyond.
On a personal level, the YES program has been transformative. It has broadened my horizons, exposed me to diverse cultures, and fostered lifelong friendships. The exchange experience allowed me to step out of my comfort zone, adapt to new environments, and develop resilience and independence. The support and guidance of my host family, as well as the friendships I formed during my exchange year, have shaped my worldview and expanded my understanding of global issues.
Furthermore, the YES program has instilled in me a deep sense of civic engagement and community involvement. Through my participation in extracurricular activities, volunteering in local initiatives, and my sex education online series, I have discovered my passion for advocacy and creating positive change. The program encouraged me to explore and engage in activities beyond academia, fostering personal growth and a commitment to making a difference in society.
In summary, the YES program has had a profound impact on my professional journey by providing educational opportunities, leadership development, and scholarships. It has also influenced me personally by broadening my perspectives, fostering resilience, and nurturing a sense of civic responsibility. Overall, the program has played a pivotal role in shaping both my professional and personal trajectory, empowering me to pursue my goals and make a meaningful impact in the world.
What is one piece of advice you would give to current or future YES program participants?
One piece of advice I would give to current or future YES program participants is to embrace every opportunity that comes your way and step out of your comfort zone. The YES program provides a unique platform for personal and professional growth, and it's essential to make the most of it. Take advantage of the scholarships, leadership programs, and community engagement initiatives offered by the program. Participate actively in extracurricular activities, connect with fellow alumni, and engage with the local community. Be open to new experiences, cultures, and perspectives.
Furthermore, seek out mentorship opportunities and build relationships with your host family, classmates, and program coordinators. They can provide guidance, support, and valuable insights that will enrich your experience.
Lastly, remember to give back to your community, both during and after the program. Use the knowledge and skills you acquire to make a positive impact in your home country. Advocate for causes that are important to you, share your experiences, and inspire others to pursue their dreams. By embracing new experiences, being proactive, and giving back, you will not only maximize your YES program experience but also develop the skills and mindset necessary to thrive personally and professionally.
In 10, 20, or even 30 years, what do you hope the legacy of the YES program will be?
I hope that the legacy of the YES program will be one of empowered individuals who have made a significant impact in their communities and beyond. I envision a network of YES program alumni who have become influential leaders, change-makers, and advocates for social justice and global understanding.
I hope that these alumni will have utilized the knowledge, skills, and opportunities gained through the program to address pressing issues in their respective fields. Whether it be in healthcare, education, environmental sustainability, or social entrepreneurship, I envision YES alumni making substantial contributions and spearheading innovative solutions to local and global challenges.
Moreover, I hope that the legacy of the YES program will extend to fostering long-lasting connections and collaborations among alumni. I envision a strong network of individuals who continue to support and inspire one another, creating a ripple effect of positive change and collective impact. Through ongoing communication, mentorship, and collaborative initiatives, YES alumni will continue to learn from each other's experiences, share resources, and amplify their collective voices.
Additionally, I hope that the legacy of the YES program will be reflected in the communities where alumni reside. I envision alumni actively engaging in community development projects, volunteering their time and expertise, and creating opportunities for others. By giving back to their communities, YES alumni can inspire future generations and create a culture of service, empathy, and inclusivity.
Ultimately, I hope that the legacy of the YES program will be a testament to the transformative power of cultural exchange, education, and global citizenship. I hope it will inspire individuals to embrace diversity, foster understanding, and work collaboratively towards a more inclusive and sustainable world.