Huzir Sulaiman’s lilting Malaysian accent echoed through Trumbull College’s Nick Chapel Theater, where he expounded on art and issues of cultural identity from the middle of an empty stage.
“We are living life wrapped in cotton wool!” Sulaiman exclaimed.
The 34-year-old from Malaysia is used to playing to audiences of hundreds as one of Southeast Asia’s most critically acclaimed dramatists. But only a few dozen people, including only six or seven undergraduates, attended his Monday performance at Trumbull, where he read from his self-written monologue, “Notes on Life & Love & Painting.”
Sulaiman is one of 18 international professionals who have spent the last four months studying at the University as a 2007 Yale World Fellow. The program is intended to bring together emerging leaders from around the world to learn from each other and participate in the University community.
But while Sulaiman attributed the low student turnout at his performance to the host of other opportunities on campus, other World Fellows and the program’s administrators said they have also struggled with low attendance at program events.
“Students could take more advantage of the resources,” said Amit Wanchoo, another 2007 World Fellow. “Inter-connectivity can be improved with time.”
Wanchoo, who hails from India, is the managing director of pharmaceutical company Eaton Laboratories, where he launched an initiative to provide free medical care for citizens in the war-torn region of Kashmir.
The first class of World Fellows arrived at Yale in 2001. In its first six years, the program has established a presence overseas, although it has yet to reach a wide audience among Yale undergraduates.
This year’s World Fellows, culled from a pool of 500 applicants, include such emerging leaders as the president of the Youth Human Rights Group in the Kyrgyz Republic, the deputy Africa area director of Save the Children and a founding member of the first pro bono law practice in Cameroon.
Sulaiman, the only professional artist in the group, was educated at Princeton and has since become an influential playwright in Malaysia and in his adopted home country of Singapore.
“I realized there wasn’t a canon of contemporary English-language drama that reflected the Southeast Asian experience,” Sulaiman said. “I had to do it myself.”
He said he was attracted to the World Fellows Program by the range of issues it would allow him to explore.
After applying in January of this year, Sulaiman was reviewed by a regional panel and interviewed over the phone before being announced as one of the winners in April.
Since Sulaiman met the rest of the World Fellows in September, the group has spent the semester exploring key global issues. Each week, they are exposed to a different topic via biweekly seminars in which they learn about everything from public health to the justice system to biotechnology. They also listen to guest speakers, present their own work and even attend classes.
The program’s goal, in the words of program administrators, is to create a network of leaders who can return to their home countries and make a difference, applying what they learned at the University.
“This is one of the most potentially effective ways to move the world forward,” Director Michael Cappello said.
A secondary aim of the program is for the World Fellows to engage with the rest of the University community and serve as resources. Each holds numerous public events, including performances and lectures, and participates in weekly program-wide panels.
Every World Fellow is associated with a residential college and assigned a cadre of student liaisons in order to help them connect with undergraduates.
But Spencer Sherwin ’08, one of Sulaiman’s two liaisons, said he has had few duties.
He and his co-liaison, Christian Barjum ’08, largely took care of logistical concerns such as publicity and printing pamphlets and fliers, although they also attended panels and haven taken Sulaiman to dinner in college dining halls.
But in spite of their efforts, few students take advantage of the program, Sherwin said.
“Besides the student liaisons, not much of the rest of the student body is involved,” he said.
Elizabeth St. Victor ’08, who attended Monday’s reading, said given that Sulaiman’s performance had been advertised on a theater e-mail panlist, she was surprised at the low turnout.
St. Victor has been to other World Fellows events in the past, but she said she has only a very general understanding of the program. Only a few students interviewed even knew about the existence of the World Fellows Program.
“Greater publicity about the World Fellows Program and … undergraduates’ relationship to the Fellows might be a helpful way to clarify their roles and ours to them,” St. Victor suggested in an e-mail.
Administrators have focused on integrating the World Fellows with students interested in their specialty or country of origin.
Cappello said this past year, the program has been very active in matching World Fellows with existing international outreach programs, such as the International Bulldogs internship program.
World Fellow Nicolas Ducote said he thinks these efforts have been highly successful. The executive director of a public-policy research organization in Argentina, Ducote said he has already met with 27 students interested in Latin American internships.
“There is an amazing amount of undergraduate students interested in the work we do,” Ducote said. “People really take advantage of the Fellows in a nourishing and useful way.”
Another major difficulty facing the World Fellows Program, Director of Programs and Admissions Valerie Belanger said, is developing the curriculum for the participants. But while tailoring a multidisciplinary program to fit all of World Fellows’ interests and needs is a challenge, some said the dialogue that results from their diversity is one of the program’s strengths.
Although the speakers and seminars and classes were educational, World Fellows interviewed said they have learned mostly from their accomplished colleagues.
Wanchoo, for example, will return to Kashmir, where he will attempt to tackle Hindu-Muslim tensions with a new strategy he said was inspired by one of his colleagues.
Sulaiman said the influences of the program on his work have been less concrete. Still, he said, he has come away with a better understanding of numerous issues — from legislative lobbying to the human implications of American foreign policy — that he hopes to address in the future.
“You always want to tell your stories to the broadest possible audience, so you kind of have to know everything, which is impossible,” Huzir said. “But you need to try to see the different perspectives that people have.”
The closing ceremonies for the 2007 World Fellows Program will take place Dec. 12.