Luis Gallegos is an Ecuadorian with more than three decades of diplomatic experience, including a stint as his nation’s ambassador to the United Nations and a long history of working on global disability issues.
His unlikely audience at a metro Atlanta reception Feb. 24 was a blend of Kennesaw State University students, faculty and 22 fellows from the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.
From opposite sides of the world, they were brought together by an idea hatched in Geneva and a U.S. government program designed to give influential Asians a chance to boost leadership skills and learn more about civic engagement.
Lance Askildson, vice provost and chief international officer, invited Mr. Gallegos to guest lecture at Kennesaw when they had last met in the Swiss city that serves as the European headquarters for many multilateral organizations.
Meanwhile, U.S. embassies around Southeast Asia were selecting a top-notch group of university students and graduates to spend four weeks in classes on civic engagement at Kennesaw State, coupled with trips to significant civil and human rights sites, including Selma, Ala., and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. They would later travel to other cities including Miami and Charleston, S.C., ending up in Washington.
Despite different nationalities and backgrounds, Mr. Gallegos was able to connect with the students around the central thread woven throughout his work: the dignity of humanity.
In fact, he was engaging in the very practice that in his view underpins the strength of the United Nations: creating conversations across cultures and national boundaries.
“It’s impossible to get to an agreement on issues if you don’t understand the other person’s position — if you don’t rationalize that that person is a human being, that has a different history than yours, a different personality, different gender,” he told the fellows.
For Duc Ho, a 25-year-old Vietnamese dental school graduate, this visit was a unique opportunity to learn about the U.S. civil rights movement.
“I think it’s great to go to different places and experience different perspectives. We can think more openly,” he told Global Atlanta.
While he said Vietnamese have mixed feelings and memories about the bloody war with the U.S., most in his generation approach the country with a sense of friendship. He learned English in part by talking to tourists in Vietnam from the U.S. and Europe. When he arrived here, he experienced a warm welcome and a very practical program that included visits to local dentist offices.
Sengvida Manichanh, who goes by the name Lulu, said she also learned English through television and classes and valued the chance to use it on this side of the world.
On this trip, the international relations major at the National University of Laos in the capital city of Vientiane was most impacted by her experience in American classrooms, where she witnessed the openness with which students challenged their professors.
“I feel like it’s OK to talk, it’s OK to express your feelings,” she told Global Atlanta.
Dr. Askildson, the principal investigator of the three-year grant that brought the fellows to Kennesaw for its second year, said the program offers value not only for the fellows but also for the university community, helping flesh out an idea Kennesaw works hard to inculcate in sits own students: global citizenship.
“They’re on this trajectory that’s amazing,” he said of the young leaders.
He will travel to Singapore in May to a YSEALI conference where the fellows will outline community-service plans they formulated in response to their experiences in the U.S.
Val Vestil, a Filipino mass communications major, said he hopes to develop an initiative focused on fostering environmental journalism in his country, a field that’s underdeveloped despite the myriad climate issues in a region home to many island nations.
“I can think big and say I’m going to do this for the entire nation, but I have to start in my home community. That’s the reason I was attracted to the YSEALI program. I’m looking forward to the global network that I will be a part of,” he said.
U.S. organizers say that’s one benefit of these programs, which have also been instituted in Latin America and Africa: linking future leaders that will form relationships to solve regional issues.
For Lulu, however, her proposed project will be very local and extremely focused: helping HIV-positive kids in Laos gain better access to health services and education, an issue she has worked on in the past with her mother.
“These kids are the future of the country. If we are not giving them significance, who is going to do it?”
Read more about the program here or watch the video below: