By Christiana Kallon

Editor’s Note: Christiana Kallon was a Summer Program Fellow for the Presidential Precinct while YALI 2017 Fellows were in Virginia. She not only had the opportunity to work with the Fellows, but also got to live with them throughout the six-week Fellowship. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of the Presidential Precinct, its partners, or donors.

Living together under one roof transformed twenty-five Mandela Washington Fellows from complete strangers into business partners, soccer teammates, and friends in just six weeks. Fellows on the Presidential Precinct’s civic leadership track were the only participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) program who move from one host site to another. Residences included a communal, family-style arrangement in the Spanish House at the University of Virginia, bed and breakfast houses at Montpellier’s Constitutional Village, and newly-refurbished, traditional dormitories at William & Mary’s Lemon Hall. In each location, Fellows turned a house into a home, embracing all the challenges that come with traveling.

As this year’s summer program fellows at the Presidential Precinct, Adrienne Wu and I had the unique opportunity to live with and help the Fellows adjust to life in the United States. We learned about each Fellow’s personality and interests during an exciting journey across Virginia. Among these truly remarkable young African leaders are lawyers, journalists, researchers, politicians, and activists committed to creating positive change in their communities. Beyond professional accomplishments and aspirations, the Fellows are inspiring people who care deeply about each other and others around them.

Leadership requires a lot of work, and I can attest to the how much effort our Fellows put into addressing issues they are most passionate about. Reflecting on the past few weeks, I can also attest to how much fun leadership development can be. While the Fellows spent most of their days in enriching academic sessions tackling complex issues like gender equality, youth unemployment, and human rights, they also participated in a variety of civic and and extracurricular activities that strengthened bonds between them.

Each week, the Fellows volunteered their time and talents to a local community organization helping people facing a variety of challenges. Community service projects included assisting low income families do their grocery shopping at Loaves & Fishes, gardening at New Roots Farm, and writing motivational letters to the kids at the Boys & Girls Club. These activities allowed Fellows to learn about pressing social issues in Virginia and share their cultures with others. In addition, Fellows connected with civic leaders here in the US and learned different ways they could add value to their own civic engagement back home.

This year’s cohort represented 18 different African countries across the continent. They differed in terms of language, ethnicity, and religion, but nevertheless, food unites everyone. In each of our locations, the kitchen was a place of laughter, music, and storytelling. We shared our love for Africa, talked about our goals for the future, and enjoyed American classics like Wonder Bread. While living in the Spanish House at UVA earlier in the summer, three of our Muslim fellows cooked an Eid lunch for the group to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Not only was the food delicious, but it was a great opportunity for Fellows and guests to learn more about a traditional holiday. We also had a pizza picnic on Buckroe Beach in Hampton, tried Mexican tacos at a food truck in Montpellier, dined at Chef Mamusu’s West African Restaurant in Richmond, and celebrated our final time together at Chercher Ethiopian Restaurant in Washington D.C. I have found that even something as simple as sharing a meal can be an opportunity to learn new things about each other and the places around us.

Many of our fellows were visiting United States for the first time, and have shared new experiences together. While at Morven Farm, we took a scenic hayride around the beautiful property. We also went to the Gordonsville Rodeo where some of our more courageous fellows even rode the mechanical bull. The highlight of the program was visiting the powerful exhibits at the National Museum of African-American History & Culture‎ in Washington D.C. In addition to grand exciting events, the Fellows have enjoyed the more mundane things, like frequent, long trips to Walmart. Together these experiences, big and small, have helped build friendships that will continue beyond the fellowship.

It has been an inspiring, challenging, and a tremendously fun six weeks with the Mandela Washington Fellows. I have gotten to know these amazing individuals, learned about their home countries, and witnessed the powerful impact of YALI. The strangers we picked up from Charlottesville airport not too long ago have become powerful network of colleagues and friends that have changed each other’s lives, and hopefully the lives of thousands more.