Following a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the East-West Center (EWC) finally welcomed its spring 2020 cohort for the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Academic Fellowship on Environmental Issues in Hawai‘i this May. The fellowship received 19 young leaders from ASEAN countries and ran from May 16 until June 2. Immediately fellows hit the ground running, with a packed schedule filled with both fun outings and career-development activities. Key highlights include meetings with stakeholders such as Hawai‘ian state senators and EWC president, Suzanne Vares-Lum. Additionally, fellows participated in multiple cultural outings and site visits, including viewings at local performance theaters, mock trials at the Judiciary Center, and trips to renewable energy plants and fire stations. They also contributed to volunteer projects in the area. Fellows assisted with the preservation of traditional Hawai‘ian fishponds, where they learned about Hawai‘ian culture and its connection to the environment. Fellows also joined creative writing workshops, as well as professional development activities such as grant writing workshops. The fellowship likewise provides an opportunity for fellows to educate their cohort and EWC staff on specialized topics through fellow-run workshops.
The Obama administration established the YSEALI program in 2013 as an initiative to invest in leadership development and engagement with young people in ASEAN countries. With over 65% of the region’s population under the age of thirty-five, the United States aims to utilize this program to engage with young leaders across multiple critical sectors and strengthen US ties with region. YSEALI now umbrellas a variety of programs and engagements across eleven countries with a network of around 150,000 members. The East-West Center and the University of Montana Mansfield Center oversee the Academic Fellowship on Environmental Issues, an experiential development program which now has over 200 alumni.
As programming resumes post-COVID, EWC and the Mansfield Center plan to host another five fellowships over the next two years, after which they will return to the pre-COVID-19 standard of two fellowships per year. The East-West Center and the Mansfield Center also hope to return to the normal program length, which includes a longer, 5-week program across three locations – Hawai‘i, California, and Washington, DC. Going forward, program leaders are eager for more intersectional and inter-departmental collaboration across YSEALI and EWC. Environmental issues touch every sector in some way, therefore there is an urgent need for international engagement and cooperation. The YSEALI program is a vital component in meeting this need.
Edith Conn is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a recent graduate of the George Washington University Master of Arts in International Affairs Program.