As 20 years have come and gone, IRIS has come to realize the importance of our program alumni and how big of a difference one can make with a dream, a goal, and very few resources.
Once IRIS participants return to their home countries, it is completely up to them to make a difference and fulfill IRIS’ mission to spread international peace and understanding. With dozens of current and past programs, the number of activities, projects and differences IRIS program alumni have made are beyond measure.
“The way I see it, is that the program doesn’t end after the students return home because while they’re here, they pick up skills and knowledge they will use in becoming future world leaders,” said Christelle Enega, IRIS’ Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program coordinator.
The KL-YES program is different from the rest in that it encourages alumni to participate in alumni activities once returning to their home countries, supplies funding and follows up with the alumni.
Enega, who interviews the students, selects them for the KL-YES program and works with them during their time in the United States, says that the most rewarding part is seeing them “return home and use the skills they’ve learned to make changes in their community.”
When Enega makes selection trips to KL-YES countries, she is always welcomed by alumni looking to help her in the selection process in any way they can. “They are helping us,” she said. “They know what you’re looking for and they assist you in every way they can. It’s amazing.”
It can be difficult to imagine returning to a country with limited resources and being expected to follow through with an alumni project, but in this case, size doesn’t matter. Enega believes that the projects that are most impactful are the smaller ones, because “it shows that you don’t need a lot of money or government support to make a change. Each alumni individually sees something they are passionate about and makes it their own.”
One of her most memorable projects began with a garden. Shughaib Abdi, a KL-YES alumni created a community garden for women in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Now, the women in the community are able to grow their spices locally rather then importing them at a higher price.
Ummul-Khair Aliyu, another KL-YES alumni learned how to sew from her host mom in Iowa. Before leaving for Nigeria in the spring, Aliyu began collecting pillowcases, which she planned to make dresses out of. After her return to Nigeria, Aliyu began the dress construction, and was finally able to deliver the dresses to an orphanage. Enega, on delivering the dresses, said, “It was very emotional and inspiring because we had recently recruited students with us. It shows you how it is the little things that make a difference.” This is an ongoing project, and one of many orphanage-based alumni activities.
IRIS founder, Bob Anderson said, “The KL-YES program has a very intentional project-oriented funding for youth to do projects and I think that’s really important and helpful to young people. It helps keep their experience alive.” He believes that the funding provides a “very positive stimulus” for the alumni.
While the KL-YES program encourages students to complete alumni activities, other programs don’t include formal project opportunities. Although they don’t receive funding, most alumni create initiatives on their own.
Many of IRIS’ alumni have been journalists. One alumni helped to create a community newspaper association in Western Europe, and four have written books on their experiences in Iowa. A Thai journalist also wrote a book on freedom of the press after visiting Iowa. “Several have even run for political office after they have returned,” said Anderson.
For the more than 1,600 participants, follow-up success has been in their hands. One person who stands out to Bob is Nick Tabatadze, who described his internship experience in Indianola, Iowa as “life changing,” said Anderson.
Nick Tabatadze, as told by Anderson- As a 19 year-old newspaper journalist, Tabatadze traveled from his home country of the Republic of Georgia to Indianola, Iowa for two months in the fall of 1994. When he returned home, he switched to broadcast journalism. In 2002, President Shevardnadze sent the military to close the station, and Tabatadze turned the cameras on them. Street demonstrations of several thousand Georgians let to Shevardnadze being forced to reverse his position and fire his cabinet. This was the first step toward the quiet revolution that removed Shevardnadze from office. By then, Nick had taken a law degree and was working as an intern in a law office in New York City. He was invited to return to Georgia and become Deputy Foreign Minister. He later became president of the television company and ran into the same attempts at intimidation from the new administration. Tabatadze has also studied at the London Business School and currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Another name that comes to Anderson’s mind is George Bokeria, who traveled to Iowa with a journalism group. Along with serving as Secretary to the National Security Council in the Republic of Georgia, Bokeria is currently the Deputy Foreign Minister.
According to Anderson, Dr. Saidu Yakubu is “one of IRIS’ most significant participants.” Almost immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Saidu arrived in Iowa with a group of Christian and Muslim leaders. He has continued to help develop and assist with IRIS programs in Nigeria ever since. Anderson said, “Saidu has played a vital role in the KL-YES program and several initiatives in helping women leaders in Nigeria connect with women in the Iowa legislature.”
Anderson also believes that women have “played the greatest role in creating change within their country.” Because women are often ignored in their own country, many of IRIS’ women participants have become very strong agents of change after participating in IRIS programs. Anderson said that he continues to believe “that women leaders are the greatest hope for the future, here at home as well as around the world.”
A majority of IRIS’ programs involve participants traveling to the United States, which creates many lifelong friends. Anderson has counted more than 200 Facebook friends being international program participants. They are from Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
Since nearly all of IRIS participants have visited Iowa, Anderson believes that IRIS “provides more benefit to Iowa, especially me, than to any of our participants.” The programs have provided him with what he calls a “window to the world” that he couldn’t have imagined before.
Most of the IRIS program participants keep in contact, whether it be by mail, phone, social media and even traveling. Networking, sharing ideas and working together not only helps participants fulfill dreams and projects, but also interconnect the world. Alumni are a crucial part of connecting Iowa to communities worldwide.