On June 16, 2012, Martha Smith, the administrative director of the Saint Mary’s SUSI program, and I hopped on a Royal Excursion bus and set out for Chicago, Ill. After weeks of hard work and preparation we were finally ready to pick up the SUSI program participants. We proudly held up our “SMC-SUSI” signs at the airport arrival gate and anticipated meeting the five delegations that were to be represented in the program: women from Burma, Egypt, Libya, Mongolia, and Tunisia.
Looking back on this moment, I never would have guessed that these young women would make up an international sisterhood to which I now belong. Each of these individuals has a unique story; they practice different religions, speak various dialects of different languages, and, most importantly, each young woman expresses her own leadership style.
I went into this program thinking I would be a mentor to two international participants. By the end I learned that all 20 participants had mentored me. Whether it was in a session with Professor Sapra, a Saint Mary’s political science and gender and women’s studies assistant professor who taught many of the SUSI sessions, on a bus traveling to New York City, or in the Regina Hall lounge, every minute spent with my peers in this program was enriching and life changing.
Times were not always easy and cultural differences can result in misunderstandings. Although all of the women spoke English very well, there were still words and phrases unfamiliar to them. Their perception of the United States was very limited and much of it was based on how America is portrayed in the media. Many of the participants were shocked to see not all American teenagers were like the characters in “American Pie” or “Friends”. Within the first couple of days they were introduced to parts of American culture they had never heard of before. For instance, many thought the majority of Americans were very well off and few lived in poverty. As a program we volunteered once a week in the South Bend community. We went to places like the Homeless Shelter, Young Women’s Christian Association, and Saint Margaret’s House. It was these experiences that broke down different barriers and allowed the participants to not only get to know their mentors better, but allowed them to also see different parts of the South Bend community.
Many of these young women have been through hardships I could never imagine. Each story is different, but the one common thread that runs through every participant is the desire to move forward with hope and courage in order to establish true social change.
I was an American ambassador to two participants from Burma and Libya who expressed strength and optimism I had never witnessed.
Mary is a Burmese student originally from the Kachin state. As I write, this ethnic group is subject to extreme violence. The Burmese Army has committed serious abuses to this region and has blocked humanitarian aid. The army has attacked villages, blazed homes, abused women, and displaced thousands and thousands of Kachin civilians. Young children are being forced to the frontlines and families are living without access to food, shelter, medicine, and other necessities. Many of Mary’s family members continue to live in the state, but Mary was able to move to the capital to continue her education. Just one week after she returned to Burma from this institute, she went to refugee camps in her state to teach young children English and other subjects. Her tool for social activism is using education. Throughout the institute, Mary repeatedly acknowledged how grateful she was to be given the opportunity to advance her education; she expressed her desire to use this opportunity for the good of her entire community and country. She plans on spending her life teaching in rural areas to empower individuals that would otherwise be subject to ignorance and violence.
Like Mary, Sarah plans to use the tools she has gained from this program to positively change her home country of Libya. Just over a year ago, Sarah was in the midst of what is now termed as the Arab Spring. Libya fought to gain independence from the restrictive Gadaffi regime, and Sarah witnessed violent acts that many individuals in America and other parts of the world could not even fathom. She heard stories of women being raped and witnessed her own neighbor being shot by Gaddafi loyalists. However, she also saw the extremes to which men and women would go to obtain freedom. It is this notion and this pride that she hopes will linger in her home country. After being inspired by watching “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a film about a group of visionary Liberian women who came together to put an end to the civil war and violent acts of Charles Taylor’s corruptive rule, during the institute, Sarah would like to start a program that would work on getting the many weapons still roaming around Libya returned. The Liberian women brought peace to their country, and after the war worked to have their sons, brothers, and nephews return the weapons that were once used for violence in their country. During the Libyan revolution both Gaddafi loyalists and freedom fighters had weapons, and once Libya gained its independence these weapons were never returned. Today, these weapons are still roaming the streets or in the homes of many civilians who previously fought for freedom. Instead of focusing on hate and violence, Sarah is moving forward with her life with hope and optimism. She expects great things from her country and believes it is her duty to use her skills to contribute to the future success of Libya.
Before this program I held a very strict definition of leadership. I saw a leader as someone who started a movement or managed a company, but after spending time with these young women I realized there are a million different ways to express leadership. In each session the directors and instructors emphasized the importance of being a global woman leader.
During each activity, participants and mentors took on different roles. Some days certain participants would take on the traditional “dominant” role of leader and the next day they would follow their peers. This idea of following and allowing others to step up to the plate is a very important characteristic of leadership that is often forgotten.
Participating in this program made me realize that in order to be a true leader you must have self-awareness. Knowing who you are is critical to learning how to lead. For me, being a leader is not about building something extraordinary, but rather about being a leader within ourselves. Today, I do not have one definition of leadership, but realize the definition is constantly changing.
Much of our leadership training was taught outside of a classroom setting. It was then that friendships were made and stereotypes were debunked. The participants learned that Americans were very hospitable and began to become accustomed to strangers smiling and holding the door open.
Friendships strengthened through late night chats and the telling of personal stories. We shared laughs and tears, but after five weeks together, we were not an institute of 30 individuals—we had become an international sisterhood. I know I will stay in contact with many of my SUSI sisters for years to come and I already have plans to visit some of them within the next couple of months.
Each participant left with a passion for social change and a newfound style of leadership, but the most important gift this program gave us was each other: an international community of support, encouragement, knowledge, and love.
Mary and me at the SUSI Closing Ceremony.