December 23, 2019

The On-Demand Youth Leadership Program (YLP) is a unique program created to serve the emerging needs of U.S. embassies by bringing high school youth and adult educators from around the world to the United States for intensive, substantive three-week exchanges. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding from the U.S. government and implemented by World Learning in partnership with organizations located across the country.

This piece was originally written and published by the Cleveland Council on World Affairs.

On October 19, Kjell Aspelin, Amanda Bendis, and Sydney Heckeler disembarked from a 12-hour flight. The three Cleveland high school students had just landed in Taiwan for a two-week trip to discover the country, its culture, and its music. For all of the students, it was their first time in Asia; for one of them, it was her first time outside of the United States.

This two-week exchange was part of the On-Demand Youth Leadership Program. It was organized by the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and coordinated in partnership with the American Institute in Taiwan and World Learning in Washington, DC.

The trip was the reciprocal component of the AIT@40 Youth Leadership Exchange Program, which had welcomed 16 music students from the four top high schools in Taiwan to Cleveland in May, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the American Institute in Taiwan. AIT is a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering Taiwan-U.S. relations and to advancing the interests of the U.S. within Taiwan.

Showcasing the Best of Cleveland to Exchange Participants from Taiwan

Kjell, Sydney, and Amanda had participated in the May exchange by helping welcome the Taiwanese cohort, introducing them to U.S. culture, and joining them during various segments of their program. Over three weeks, students from Taiwan toured three world-renowned music conservatories in Northeast Ohio, joined a Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra practice, learned about music therapy, and engaged in volunteering activities and leadership-building sessions, among other activities related to music and youth leadership.

Youth Leaders from Cleveland Explore Taiwan

For the first time in the history of the U.S. Department of State’s On-Demand Youth Leadership Program, an outbound component was included to provide an opportunity for U.S. students to travel abroad. Six months after making friends with the Taiwanese students in Cleveland, Kjell, Sydney, and Amanda reconnected with students in all four Taiwanese cities represented in the program: Hsinchu, Taichung, Koahsiung, and Taoyuan.

During the program, the U.S. students stayed in the Taiwanese students’ homes, visited their schools, and participated in music-related service learning projects. The students from Cleveland also learned how to make dumplings, visited local temples, and tried their hand at indigo dyeing. They participated in music-themed activities and practiced with a Taiwanese school orchestra, learned to play the Chinese zither, and performed in a Taiwanese opera.

At the end of the program, the Taiwanese and U.S. students came together to perform a joint concert, ending with a choral rendition of the song “A Whole New World,” from the Disney movie Aladdin. As all 19 exchange program students congregated on stage for their last song, the audience was touched by the underlying message about the power of global connections to change the world and broaden perspectives. The students picked the song as a representation of their exchange program experience together.

Global Connections, Local Impact

The program had an impact on both sides. Taiwanese students who had previously not held much interest in the U.S. were now preparing for the English language exams needed to attend U.S. universities. In recent years, interest in the U.S. has waned among Taiwanese youth. Renewed interest in the U.S. among the next generation of Taiwanese leaders can be a critical relationship-builder in a region where this is particularly important for U.S. interests.

The students from Cleveland were similarly impacted. Sydney said that the trip inspired her to pursue a career in international relations, and in fact she wishes to apply to the National Security Language Initiative for Youth study abroad program to return to Taiwan. She also plans to stay connected with who she now sees as lifelong friends in Taiwan.

“Taiwan was a life changing experience for me,” Sydney said. “I had such an amazing, unbelievable, wonderful time getting the opportunity to do things I’ve never done or seen before, and being able to make really close friends. I think that Taiwan is a place I would love to return to very soon, either for my future career or to visit my friends!”