Inspiring under the radar

Since its establishment in 2001 by former President Richard Levin, the World Fellows Program has built a network of 257 members from 83 countries.
Since its establishment in 2001 by former President Richard Levin, the World Fellows Program has built a network of 257 members from 83 countries. Photo by Ken Yanagisawa.

What do an award-winning Indian actress, an Italian robotics engineer and a former Colombian cabinet minister have in common?

Not much, except that all have been selected as 2014 Yale World Fellows, a group of 16 mid-career professionals who will spend four months on campus next fall as part of a program that will allow them to return to an academic setting and think about the next phase of their lives.

The World Fellows program, which welcomes a new cohort to campus every year, is entering its 13th year, and interest in the program is only growing, said program director and School of Medicine professor Michael Cappello. The program received nearly 4,000 applications this year, a significant increase from about 2,500 applications the year before, he added. This year’s cohort, which was officially announced yesterday, will include the program’s first Fellows from Spain, Equatorial Guinea and Syria.

“My hope is to finish this four-month fellowship, having taken a giant leap in my personal journey, integrated into a network of brilliant Yale Fellows,” said Rami Nakhla, a newly selected Fellow and peace activist from Syria. “This will empower me to face one of the most challenging conflicts of our time and to lead the transition in my country.”

Over the past decade, the program has built a network of 257 members from 83 countries. Yet despite constant efforts by coordinators and affiliates to publicize World Fellows events, the program remains relatively untapped by the student body.

 

A “360 DEGREE” TRAINING PROGRAM

The World Fellows program was launched in 2001 by former president Richard Levin as part of the celebrations for Yale’s 300th anniversary. With the program, Levin aimed to increase international dialogue on campus — a goal that current President Peter Salovey has expressed interest in continuing.

“This innovative program continues to represent the very best of Yale’s efforts to educate and inspire future leaders,” Salovey said.

While on campus, the Fellows participate in various University events and interact with the entire Yale community, from faculty members to graduate students to undergraduates. They live in New Haven for one semester and during that time they collaborate with professors on research, give Master’s Teas and engage informally with students over falafel or coffee, said Uma Ramiah, Director of Communications for the program.

“You literally could spend your entire semester only going to World Fellow events,” Ramiah said.

But while these events are the more visible aspect of the Fellows’ activities on campus, the core of the World Fellows program is a “360 degree” training curriculum, designed to aid Fellows in skills such as media presence, leadership and personal and professional development, said Valerie Belanger, managing director of the program. This training program allows the Fellows to audit classes and participate in specialized seminars to broaden their perspectives.

“We don’t bring them to Yale to become more of an expert in what they’re already doing,” Belanger said. “We want them to open their minds in all the other fields that are out there and step outside of their narrow realm of expertise.”

The goal, Belanger said, is to encourage the Fellows to address global issues in new and multidisciplinary ways, while also gaining a fresh understanding of their old areas of expertise.

For Sawsan Zaher, a 2013 Fellow who worked as a Palestinian human rights lawyer in Israel, her experience at Yale opened her eyes to career possibilities she had stopped considering.

“Before I came here, I was thinking that I would spend all my life as a human rights lawyer,” she said. “But when I came here, I felt I needed to keep myself open to other options that can be even more interesting and exciting.”

 

CREATING A COMMUNITY

When the 2014 World Fellows arrive on campus next fall, their schedules will be packed every day with interactions with various members of the University community. Perhaps most importantly, though, they will interact with each other. All past Fellows interviewed cited the relationships that they had built with each other as the most important result of their time at Yale.

“[Coming in], I expected the program to give me academic enrichment and new insights into my own leadership,” said Janet Dalziell, 2013 fellow and director of global development for Greenpeace. “In the end, the part that surprised me in a really great way was how much I got out of interpersonal relationships with my fellow Fellows.”

The Fellows hail from diverse countries, have diverse interests and come from diverse professional backgrounds. What they share, for four months, is an intense desire to learn — about Yale, about the world, and about each other. And this shared desire forms intense bonds of friendship, Zaher said.

Interviewed in December, just days after the official end of the program, Zaher joked that talking too much about her experience would make her cry.

“Many emotions have really gotten out in the past week,” she said. “We’ve really started to digest that we’re leaving Yale and each other. Powerful personal relations were established, and it’s hard to let go.”

According to many people involved with the program, though, these relations don’t end when the Fellows leave campus. There is no such thing as a “former Fellow,” said Enrique Betancourt, a 2013 Fellow who works in urban planning and crime prevention in Mexico. Once you are a World Fellow, you are forever a part of a larger network of passionate, committed individuals, Betancourt said.

Beyond lasting emotional connections, these relationships are manifested in more visible ways as well. For instance, Barry Nalebuff, a School of Management professor who conducted several seminars with the Fellows, said past Fellows have stayed at his home while visiting campus, and he has been to several of their weddings.

“I have no doubt that when I go to any city, I can look up past World Fellows, whether or not I’ve actually met them, and expect to have a friend and somewhere to stay,” Dalziell said.

 

TAKING ADVANTAGE

Besides being a tool for the Fellows, the extensive network of current and past Fellows is perhaps one of Yale’s most underutilized resources, Cappello said. Because of the Fellows’ attachment to the University, they are always willing to give back to the Yale community, if only its members know how to take advantage of their commitment, he added. For example, he cited the over 100 internship and job opportunities for Yale students the 2013 Fellows arranged within their respective organizations.

“In making Yale accessible to the World Fellows, we have made the world accessible to Yale,” he said.

The problem, then, is whether or not students actually do take advantage of this access. Increasing publicity has always been an ongoing effort for the program, Ramiah said. With complete turnover of the student body every four years, the organization must work every year to make students aware of its existence, Cappello said.

One way the program strives to increase student involvement is through its undergraduate liaison and graduate student affiliate programs. Each Fellow has two undergraduate liaisons and two graduate affiliates who are selected every spring from about 50 to 75 applicants in each group, and they are responsible for helping the Fellows acclimate to Yale, promoting the Fellow’s events on campus and helping the Fellow find new opportunities to engage with the student body.

Hadia Shah ’15, who served as head undergraduate liaison in 2013, said the liaisons were effective in spreading the word, both formally and informally. Their excitement about the program encouraged them to go “above and beyond” their normal responsibilities, she added.

Still, out of seven randomly polled students, only one, Josh Feng ’17, had heard of the World Fellows program — from a friend who served as an undergraduate liaison.

Despite all the liaisons’ efforts, the World Fellows events are just one of many that vie for students’ attention.

“The program competes with an incredible amount of events, programs and initiatives in an incredible university,” Betancourt said. “But it’s very important to talk about the value that the program represents for Yale.”

To illustrate this, he cited the World Fellows forum that is held on campus every two years, bringing current and past Fellows together to reunite and discuss their work. Hundreds of Fellows — who have all gone back to their own lives — drop everything to come for a few days, paying their own expenses to interact with each other and the University, he said.

“For me, this is the most important indicator of the loyalty of the Fellows to this institution,” he said.

2013 Fellow Saul Kornik put it more simply: “I don’t think Yale realizes what it’s got.”

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