NEW YORK — Each spring, the halls of UNFPA come alive with youthful energy as a new crop of Special Youth Fellows come on board. “Suddenly there are loud voices, music, running in the corridors,” said UNFPA staff member Marija Vasileva-Blazev, who started her own career in international development seven years ago in a similar fellowship programme..
And then, four and a half months later they leave, to take experiences and capacities gained back to the UNFPA offices in their respective countries. This year, before going home, they attended the World Youth Conference in Mexico.
At a meeting to celebrate and say goodbye to this year’s group of six Special Youth Fellows, they described their experiences in the programme, which has grown stronger and more rigorous each year, according to several people who spoke at the meeting. The Fellows chose specific tasks to pursue at headquarters, and this year’s outputs were varied and substantive.
Each took on a different substantive project
Sasha Sheleviy (Ukraine) attended a training session on Y-PEER and has launched the peer education and leadership programme in Ukraine. Quynh Nguyen (Viet Nam) researched and produced an extensive review of programming for HIV prevention among sex workers in Asia, which will be presented at a regional meeting. Wissam Samhat (Lebanon) spoke about life in a conflict zone on several panels and narrated on film on the subject. Patrina Fong (Fiji) presented her research on aid effectiveness to UNFPA colleagues at her own ‘brown bag’ session. Rodrigue Anato (Togo) delved into issues of aid effectiveness, accountability and transparency. Kalindy Bolivar (Ecuador) used her background to support the mission of the Task Force on Adolescent Girls to her country.
“Never before have I seen young people asked to contribute so much,” said Sasha. “Now I see more clearly my place in development.”
“I learned we are not just working with issues, but with people who are working on issues,” said Kalindy, who described herself as a young person, a feminist, a mother and an activist.
Their colleagues were also impressed by the quality and depth of the work that was accomplished.
“I was stunned by the competence they showed,” said one staff member.
“I kept forgetting I was working with a ‘young person’,” said another.
Getting to know themselves, others and New York
“We’re very proud of what you have achieved,” said UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, who initiated the Special Youth Programme as part of her emphasis on youth participation and leadership. “When we were your age, we were not as mature, we did not know as much.”
She also noted that the programme had many aims. Beyond helping the Fellows get on a solid career curve, build knowledge and strengthen their capacities, the programme also aimed to expose them to the rich diversity – and to have fun, she said.
And in these respects, the programme exceeded expectations, according to the Fellows. Wissam’s comment was typical: “I expected a lot, and got a lot I didn’t expect. I learned about myself. I was exposed to such a global mix in one city.”
As they discussed their experiences, the young people emphasized how much they enjoyed themselves, even as they were pushed beyond their usual comfort zones, not only in their work but also in adapting to life in New York City. They also talked about the cross-cultural friendships that were formed, and the inter-generational connections with their mentors that redefined their understanding of the power of partnerships.
Applications for the next Special Youth Programme will be posted on the UNFPA website beginning in January and circulated widely to UNFPA partners.