During the recent Saudi Young Leaders Exchange Program, 34 Saudi college students spent three weeks in the United States. They were joined by six American college students. These young “cultural ambassadors” helped the Saudi visitors see and understand community service, leadership, and volunteerism from the point of view of young people in the US, whether on college campuses, in communities, or around the world. Abby Richardson, a senior at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, reflects on her experience.

Saudi Youth in Richmond with Peer Mentor, Abby (far right)

As a Cultural Ambassador with Legacy International for the Saudi Young Leaders Exchange Program, I had the unique opportunity of experiencing the program as a participant alongside Saudi students. My peer mentor role began during the community immersion segment of the program in Richmond with a group of 12 Saudis.

Just about all the participants I spoke with were excited to be in the US to learn about our culture, service programs and opportunities. I, in turn, was excited to learn about them and their culture and they were just as eager to share. Most of all I was surprised at how stylish, tech savvy and knowledgeable of popular culture they all were!

The Saudis saw me as a friend and peer whom they could both share knowledge with and learn from. I think my being a young American woman, who could comfortably interact with both guys and girls in a group, helped them to be more comfortable in engaging with group members of the opposite gender as well, something that is not commonplace in their country.

The metro was an entirely new thing for many of them, and movie theaters were also a huge hit for them—it seemed whenever one was spotted, a large group outing to see a movie was planned. Probably one of the things they felt most homesick about, apart from being away from loved ones, was that the food here is quite different. They got a taste of real American food in DC when we went to Good Stuff Eatery, which had a vast variety of unique delicious burgers (I ordered the Obama Burger), homemade fries and milkshakes with flavors like Toasted Marshmallow and Summer Peach. And I made an effort at Union Market to try some authentic Arab food, taking the suggestion to try shwarma for the first time, which I really liked! I also tried to learn more about the Arabic language, dialects, and slang which they were all eager to teach me. On various occasions I was quizzed on what I knew and urged to ask and answer basic questions.

Batool (Saudi participant) and Abby (Peer mentor)

After the group completed the first week of their program at the DC “Leadership Clinic,” I met up with them at the University of Richmond campus as they arrived from a weekend with host families in the area, and I was very happy to hear all the positive things they had to say about their experiences. Many even wished they could have stayed a few days longer! During the first part of our week in Richmond we were able to get better acquainted with the university’s campus, the programs and opportunities offered there, and the dedication to volunteerism shown by its student leaders.

The second part of the week was dedicated to site visits with local organizations dealing closely with community service and volunteer work. We visited the ASPiRE program at Virginia Commonwealth University, the James River Association, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the World Pediatric Project and Stop Child Abuse Now. At each of these sites we learned how different service models address a variety of issues facing communities. As a group we also visited places like Stony Point shopping mall, the trendy downtown area called Carytown, The Virginia Museum of Fine Art and a Juneteenth Cultural Event during our time in Richmond.

The final week of the program was the ‘Leadership Summit’ in Washington, DC. During this time the Saudi participants began making the final adjustments on their project proposals, while peer mentors prepared workshops for participants on ‘special skills’ that could come in handy for developing their project in the future. We also enjoyed presentations on sustainable social entrepreneurship from Ahmad Ashkar, founder of the Hult Prize, and Dr. Ira Kaufman, social media and digital strategy guru, who were both very inspiring speakers.

The workshops planned by the Cultural Ambassadors came next. I saw Simdi’s presentation and I was impressed by her vast knowledge of her subject. Then, after much preparation I gave my presentation. It went smoothly and the Saudis seemed to like it, especially when we played a game I came up with about creating logos. I was able to give advice and ideas, which at least one of them took to create his logo, which he now advertises on his Facebook profile picture! Finally the time came for the Saudis to present their project proposals. I was impressed by the high level of thought and effort that they put into their presentations.

I found it almost hard to believe by the end of the program that socializing with the opposite gender in public was as uncommon and frowned upon as it is in their home country. One Saudi girl told me that as nice as it was, once the program was over and they returned home, she was positive that the girls and guys would mostly fall back into completely avoid socialization with members in the group of the opposite gender.

At least some of the questions, concerns or complaints my Saudi group members had, would likely have felt awkward to ask someone they couldn’t consider a peer. And I was more than happy to be that person and help them out whenever I could.

The last day came too fast, and when it did, there was much signing of name-tags, shirts, and other scraps of paper as soon as there was some free time. Many sentimental notes and hugs were shared and group pictures taken. J.E. Rash,  President of Legacy, hosted dinner at a fancy restaurant in Georgetown, Neyla, which specializes in Middle Eastern cuisine. The room reserved for us was gorgeous and all the food was delicious. Final speeches were made thanking one another for making the program possible and so great, and others shared their best experiences and lessons learned. Each participant received a certificate for completing the program and as a surprise Matt and Leila (SYLEP Co-Directors) presented each participant with a special edition of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” with markers for everyone to sign each others book. More signing, pictures, hugs and even tears followed but no one could deny that it was a perfect end to an amazing program.

When I learned that many of them were traveling on to other cities in the US after the program, including New York, I was able to share my thoughts and give suggestions of things to do and see based on my experience. And when I shared that I wanted to see the world, and definitely the Middle East someday, they told me about all the great sights to see in Saudi Arabia, and told me about the differences between their cities and regions.

I look forward to keeping in touch with my new friends, and hopefully I will have a chance to visit with some of them in the future!

U.S. Department of StateThe Saudi Young Leaders Exchange Program (SYLEP) is initiated and supported by the Embassy of the United States in Saudi Arabia. SYLEP is sponsored by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and administered by Legacy International with assistance from the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia.