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Lama Almadhyani is 23 years old and entering her fourth and final year in medical school in Saudi Arabia. As a medical student, she knows first hand the problems many cancer patients face who don’t have transportation and can’t reach their doctor’s appointments. She is young, smart, ambitious and is a rising leader in her country.

She, along with 39 other students from Saudi Arabia have come to the United States for three weeks as part of a leadership training program called the Saudi Young Leaders Exchange Program (SYLEP). Initiated and supported by the Embassy of the United States in Saudi Arabia, this program is just one of many organized and run by Legacy International, an extraordinary initiative, which works to promote peace by training and mentoring community leaders to help them develop the skills to participate in local community based problem solving.

I met Lama and the other students last week when I was asked to come and speak to the group about social media, specifically addressing, “How to Use Social Media to Effect Social Change”. I have to say, I’ve never met such a warm, smart, curious group of young adults.

As a part of the program, each student must choose one  project idea in an area of personal importance and concern that inspires them (either in public health, education, the environment or literacy), and then plan a course of action to fulfill and develop this project once they return to Saudi Arabia. For Lama, she wants to develop an organization to help provide transportation for cancer patients. She is calling it “Vehicle for Cure”.

During their time in the United States, Lama and her fellow students will learn leadership skills, as well as practical tools needed to flesh out and develop the concepts for their projects. Once they finish their time in the United States, the goal is to take the projects back home to Saudi Arabia to “bring them to life”.

When I met the students last week, they had just returned from 9 days in three different cities. Some of the group went to Pittsburgh, PA, others to Richmond, VA and the final group to Blacksburg, VA. There, they lived on or near college campuses visiting various organizations like homeless shelters,  centers serving people with disabilities, poverty reduction programs, soup kitchens and other charities. They also had panel discussions with young professionals, innovators in government, education, NGOs, and religious sectors to help them begin to think about their own goals, about what inspires them and how they view leadership.

They also saw first hand the challenges many of our non-profits and NGO’s face and how these challenges are addressed through public, private and joint initiatives. The Saudi Young Leaders Exchange Program (SYLEP) focuses on showing the students initiatives run and organized by young people, that serve youth, and with young people as volunteers. The students meet with American volunteers, leaders, organizers and through this experience, not only learn critical thinking, but what it takes to be a strong leader and manager.

Before I went to speak at this conference, I have to admit, I really knew very little about Saudi Arabia and its culture and people. I still can’t claim to know much, but I’m learning. As an example, I didn’t realize that there was such a high unemployment rate among Saudi citizens. Foreigners, it seems, claim many Saudi jobs and this hits many of the young Saudis coming out of University particularly hard.

The Gulf region is trying to help and will create about 600,000 jobs for nationals by 2019, but those jobs will provide work for only about a third of the youthful population due to enter the labor force, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Not surprisingly, today Saudi youths are more connected to each other and global issues than ever before. The number of Saudi University students who volunteer is growing, as is their interest in civic engagement. I’m sure you can guess why. Not only are young people increasingly motivated to help their communities, whether it be poverty or conflict or inequity, but since the majority of the private sector jobs in Saudi Arabia go to foreigners, many students see volunteerism as an opportunity to develop leadership skills and gain good work experience.

As a result, the emphasis on the work that the SYLEP is doing is even greater. As for my involvement, in today’s world, whether you are launching a for-profit or non-profit, it’s difficult to be successful without a strong social media strategy. This is where two other marketing professionals and I came into the picture. We had the opportunity to speak with the students about social media and its ability to effect social change. Ons Alkhadra, Senior Offier of MENA and GCC Affairs at the International Medical Corps, Samita Thapa, Global Communications and Engagement Officer at TechChange, and I each addressed the group on different topics as they relate to social media.

I gave a presentation which showed the students how to create a social media strategy, step-by-step, starting with “Defining Your Social Media Objectives and Goals” and moving from there. I used the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge as an example to showcase the power that social media can have to not only raise brand awareness, but to increase donations (The ice bucket challenge helped raise over$220 million dollars globally for ALS). I discussed my work as Director of Communications at ecoAmerica where we use marketing research to build public support for climate solutions among mainstream Americans and spoke about the social media platforms we use to drive website traffic, thought leadership and leads.

The students were fully engaged and asked a multitude of questions after the presentation. I spoke individually with many students who wanted to delve further into the specifics of the social media strategy I had outlined. We spoke about their project ideas, how to develop influencer strategies; identify keywords; I showed them Buffer on my computer…it was extraordinary!

Last year in June, 34 Saudi students came to the United States as a part of the SYLEP program. Once they returned home, the students began to implement their “follow on projects” which they had developed here in the United States. Legacy International’s trainers and staff provided coaching and support along the way, as well as a small mini-grant to cover program expenses.

As examples, two of these students, Esraa and Mashail, worked together to help elderly community members travel to Mecca on a pilgrimage which would otherwise not have been possible. Another student, Mohammad, an accomplished filmmaker, developed a project to combat corruption by creating a video and posting it on social media. Mohammad shared the video with Saudi Arabia’s National Anti-Corruption Commission, which published it on their YouTube channel. The list of the work that the students from 2014, accomplished goes on.

Lama and her fellow students have already left the United States. Their time here is over and now they must return to Saudi Arabia and see if they can fulfill their goals and make their projects a reality.

One of the students in the program couldn’t have said it better “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”. Another lesson learned from my new friends in Saudi Arabia.

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