Bridging Cultures

Floricane & VCU IYLEP (2011)

photo: via

One of the best parts of my job – which as best I can tell is to be a community-minded, entrepreneurial busybody – is when I’m invited into the room to share what passes for accumulated knowledge.

Early in June, Sarah Milston and I shared the stage with 50 college student s engaged in what may well be one of the most amazing educational experiences available in #RVA.

Now in its second year, VCU’s participation in the Department of State’s Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) has matured and found focus. Two groups – 25 Iraqi students and 25 American students – are spending the summer learning about journalism, social media and the nonprofit landscape. The Iraqi students are learning about America, and all of the students are learning about each other.

The students form into teams and are assigned a local nonprofit. Their assignment? To develop and implement a strategic social media campaign for their nonprofit. The challenges? Too many to describe.

Sarah and I were among several dozen experts invited to speak to the students during their month-long program. We shared our expertise in nonprofit consulting. This is my second year with the program; in 2010, I worked with students to address social media and project management issues.

We walked away thoroughly impressed with the IYLEP students. They asked good questions and wrestled big consulting challenges -- some teams worked with organizations that were unfamiliar with social media platforms; other groups experienced uncomfortable disconnects among individuals within the client organizations.

In the end, I’m confident that these students will deliver some valuable new tools and strategies to the organizations they’re supporting. The teams will present their final projects to the Social Media Club of Richmond later this month.

As a former student of Middle Eastern culture and politics with several extended trips to the region under my belt, I’m less concerned about the quality of their work. I’m far more interested in the quality of their interactions with the people and cultures they’re experiencing here in the United States.

Last year’s IYLEP experience was a major paradigm shift for the Iraqi participants, several of whom still periodically check in with me on Facebook. The State Department and VCU should be applauded for this amazing program, and the American and Iraqi students participating should be proud to represent their countries and cultures during this rare experience together.