NIU’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) and the Center for Non-Governmental Organization Leadership and Development (NGOLD) bid farewell Wednesday, Nov. 4, to 21 young Southeast Asian leaders participating in the Leading and Organizing for Change in Southeast Asia (LOCSEA) institute.
Beginning Sept. 30, the trip concluded with a five-day study tour of the South and Washington, D.C.
This is the first time NIU has hosted the academic fellows program, a component of the U.S. Department of State’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), an international project launched in 2013 to strengthen youth leadership in the region, where 65 percent of the population is younger than 35.
Roughly 500 young adults come from the region to the United States annually to participate in programs such as LOCSEA at NIU, according to the U.S. Department of State.
While at NIU, the YSEALI Academic Fellows – from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam and ranging in age from 19 to 25 – studied the historical and contemporary roots of the civil, labor, women’s and disability rights movements in between sessions on civic leadership, non-governmental organization building and public speaking. Most sessions were led by NIU faculty or staff.
They also traveled to Chicago to meet with rights organizations and visit historical sites important to the civil and labor rights movements, such as the Chicago Stockyards and Haymarket Square, said co-administrative director Colleen Gray.
During their time in Illinois, the group also volunteered in various local service projects, including Feed’em Soup, Opportunity House, and Feed My Starving Children, visited a stop on the Underground Railroad in Princeton, Ill., and traveled to Springfield to tour the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and the State Capitol. They’ve also had the opportunity to visit with a variety of civic leaders, including representatives from Rotary and Salvation Army, State Sen. Ed Maloney, DeKalb Mayor John Rey, DeKalb County Treasurer Christine Johnson and State Rep. Robert Pritchard.
Based at Neptune Residence Hall, they also experienced living on an American college campus.
“The YSEALI Academic Fellows have really gotten involved in campus, exploring classes, trying different dining halls, meeting students, meeting with faculty, taking part in the Take Back the Night march and watching the Homecoming game,” said Maria “Rai” Nihei, co-administrative director with Gray. “They’ve also had a chance to meet and ask really insightful questions of local lawmakers. They’ve taken an interest in the intricacies and processes of lawmaking and governance in the United States.”
Partnering with NGOLD was essential for this new CSEAS initiative, said CSEAS Director Judy Ledgerwood, who with NGOLD Director Nancy Castle served as academic directors for the project.
“We have been bringing Southeast Asian students to NIU for the State Department’s Southeast Asia Youth Leadership Program since 2009. NGOLD’s expertise in community leadership is a good match for this new project’s focus on civil and human rights,” Ledgerwood said.
Castle was equally enthusiastic about bringing the NGOLD experience to an international audience of young leaders.
“NGOLD’s Community Leadership and Civic Engagement major asks ‘What happens when people band together to make a difference?’ Nothing exemplifies that as eloquently as the rights movements in the United States,” she said. “The opportunity to work with CSEAS allows both centers to show what they are about and how interrelated topics cross boundaries here at NIU.”
For the LOCSEA fellows, the program offered an opportunity to learn about important social movements in the United States and connect them to civic engagement in their own countries.
“Being involved in NGOs and community service organizations back in my home country, I found it extremely enlightening to learn the history of civil rights movements,” said Billy (Billah Bin Pg Hj Hasan) of Brunei. “We learned how to organize and mobilize people toward improvements and the betterment of the nation. The most important aspect of the program is that it helped us to identify, create and tailor civic action plans based on our field of interests and the needs of our respective countries.”
Regisda Fuady of Indonesia said that the biggest lesson he took away was the power of example. “I learned that to create a change, we need to have courage,” he said. “The program opened our eyes about civil rights such as labor rights and women’s rights. I learned courage from figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Abraham Lincoln.”
The fellows also learned from each other in daily reflection sessions held at the end of the day.
“Every evening we reflected about what we learned in the day’s lecture. Each of the participants would tell the stories about the condition of their country in particular topic, such as women’s rights in Cambodia, civil rights in Myanmar, and religious rights in Indonesia, etc.,” Fuady said.
“I’ve learned that people are more than their complexion and pigment of their skin color, or their gender and sexual preference, or even the broken or limited parts of their bodies,” she said. “People are thousands of songs sung about their struggles, fueled by their passion and created by countless stories. If you have the time to sit and listen, you will hear – and only then will you know someone and the change they can impact you.”
The fellows left campus Oct. 27 for the South. Accompanied by Ledgerwood, Castle, and Gray, the group visited cities that galvanized the American civil rights movement, including Atlanta and Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery, Ala.
The program ended in Washington, D.C., where the group met with U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger on Capitol Hill and with staff members from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs, which oversees the YSEALI program and awarded the $223,000 grant for LOCSEA to NIU.