The Youth Exchange and Study Program (YES)
History and Background
The Department of State’s Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau in Washington, D.C. launched the Partnership for Learning: Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program in 2003.
The objective of the program is to provide young Nigerian students from predominantly Muslim communities as well as those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to enhance their understanding of the American society, its people, institutions, values and culture. The program targets Senior Secondary school I students who travel to the U.S. for one academic year and return home to join their colleagues at the Senior Secondary II level to complete their school certificate program.
Through this intense interaction over a prolonged period of time, students developed leadership skills, new friendships and a better understanding of America and its democratic way of life.
Students in the 2003-04 program came from 14 largely predominantly Muslim countries including Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirate, West Bank/Gaza and Yemen. The profile of students in 2005-06 was similarly Muslim youths from Algeria, West Bank, Gaza, Iraq, Israel (Arab community), Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Malaysia, Philippines, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and India.
At its inception, the program faced many challenges notably from Muslim clerics and traditional leaders in Kaduna and Sokoto States who criticized it as another American ploy to impose their western values and religion on young innocent students.
However, a trip to the U.S. by one of the community leaders from Kaduna and a few parents from Sokoto, including the Governor led to a change in their perception of the program. Today, many parents are lobbying to have their children recruited for the YES program because most of those who participated have returned not only academically enriched, but also with a stronger commitment to their religion and other community activities. Parents embrace the YES program, and see it as an opportunity for the intellectual and spiritual growth of their young children who had an opportunity to interact and worship with American Muslims during their stay in the U.S.
A U.S.-based NGO, Iowa Resource for International Services (IRIS) administers the Nigerian portion of the program with an initial $305,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State.
The rigor of the selection process accounts for the success of the program. The Ministry of Education from each participating state and IRIS associates organize written and oral tests, and select the best Senior Secondary I students in the State. These students are then short-listed and subjected to intense interviews before the final selection is made.
While the YES program commences in the U.S., the selection process starts in November of the preceding year to provide IRIS with adequate time to seek placements, as well as identify host families for the incoming students.
The Success Story
Since its inception, 76 Nigerian high school students and 8 teachers have participated in the program.
During the 2003 cycle, 20 students and 2 teachers from Kaduna and Sokoto States participated on the program. These two states were initially chosen because of their strategic position and complex dynamics as the former capital of the defunct northern Nigeria and the seat of the Sokoto Caliphate. In 2004, due to a significant increase in travel and other related expenses, as well as IRIS inability to secure additional funding from ECA, the number of participants was decreased to 16.
In 2005, the program was expanded to include Plateau and Taraba States. All the states except Taraba had six students, while Taraba had two, bringing the total to 20 students.
This year, Bauchi was added to the list, though only male students were selected from the State.
Due to Nigeria’s special case, where relations between Christians and Muslims has deteriorated in recent years, few Christians students and teachers were incorporated into the program to expose both sides to religious tolerance in the United States.
For the 2006-2007 academic cycle, the plan was to recruit students from Bauchi and Kano States. While Bauchi has selected all male students for participation, Kano was not comfortable with the age component of the program, which is 15-17 years of age. They believed the students are too young to stay away from their parents for one academic year. IRIS hopes that the state government will soon change its mind and allow its students to participate in the program. The good story from Bauchi is that the state government has approved the inclusion of female students for the 2007 cycle of the program. Four of the six students selected from the state for 2007/2008 cycle, are girls.
The program has also received financial support from some states, including Sokoto which has been cost-sharing in travel and passport expenses for their students in the amount of approximately N2 million annually. Governor Dalhatu Attahiru Bafarawa even allowed his son to participate to boost support for the program. Kaduna has also started to cost share. A philanthropist and owner of Chanchangi Airline, Alhaji Ahmadu whose school has benefited from the program in the first year donated domestic air tickets to all Kaduna participants to cover travel expenses to/from Lagos for visa interviews and to Abuja for departure to United States.
YES students have performed well in their host schools. Zainab Mohammed, a participant in the first group was appointed Governor in the school because of her leadership qualities. Ishaq Adamu is a member of his school’s football team and Abdul Jalal Mohammed was a star soccer player who helped his school to reach the state tournament. He was also recognized as one of the best soccer players in Iowa. Another YES student - Buhari Yunusa helped to establish a club for Islamic students at his school and won competitions at the mosque. Abdulhafeez Lawal was a student spokesperson for his local newspaper. He won the State Alumni of the Month for February 2006, because of his contributions in the formation of a Peace Club and his community service in Kaduna.
Others who made their mark include Aminu Jibrila and Maryam Umar who have had their stories published in a national newsletter for elementary school students. Abdulsalam Abubakar, a deaf and speech impaired student who served as the first handicapped student to participate in the program excelled in the school he was placed. He is currently the Deputy Chairman of the National Association for the Deaf and is working to ensure that deaf students from Nigeria obtain scholarships from Iowa to continue their education.
Since their return to Nigeria, the YES students have formed PEACE Clubs to promote religious tolerance and resolve disputes among students in their respective schools. During last year’s World Earth Day, YES students organized environmental cleanup in Kaduna. This year, the YES alumni group won a Disney Award for their community service activities during the World Global Youth Day.
From the academic aspect, four YES alumni have secured admission to the U.S. colleges. Many of them have also completed the secondary certificate exam with excellent result and are studying in Nigerian universities. For all of them, life will never be the same again. They have become role models within their communities, represented their schools creditably in the U.S, and gained exposure that will help them throughout their lives.
In Iowa, young Africans learn to change the world (June 5, 2007)