A summary of my first week as a Washington Fellow – Isaiah Owolabi

I have had great opportunities in my life, some of them just make me feel happy, few of them make me excited but very few of these opportunities have made me over-excited. After listening to President Obama announce the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, I was looking forward to being part of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) program. Everything about the program description fit the next feel or experience that I craved for in my career development plans. After being notified of the interview and selection I was looking forward to meeting other Nigeria fellows. Obviously I was not disappointed when I met them. Even though I had not met any of them before the selection I was very impressed by their knowledge of Nigeria, interest in development of Africa, achievement in their various field of expertise and much more fascinating is the great sense of humor and harmony amongst the fellows. Within two days of pre-departure we felt like we have known each other for over 5 years and for me YALI started on that day.


I continued interacting with YALI fellows from other parts of Africa online and started reading about the University I will be spending the Academic part of the program – Wagner College. Before the YALI program I have never heard about Wagner College and it was the location of the Statue of Liberty that made me always desire to visit Staten Island, the location of Wagner College. On June 14th 2014 I arrived in New York to a warm welcome from the staff at Wagner college, Ruta, Ninah, Prof. Jarson and Curtis. Since then, we have engaged in different academic activities, community visit and fellow to fellow interactions . I am happy to reflect on some of the great lessons and best moments after the first week:

Lessons from Professor Jason and Dr Tim:

Prof Jason was very nice and humble in guiding us around the campus and helping us settle in but I have met so many nice and humble people so that’s not the lesson. When we got talking, I asked him what he likes most about Wagner college he said ‘No one here is too proud to change what they are doing or the way they do things’. For me, that’s the most open way academics or educational institutions can encourage engagement and knowledge sharing.

No one here is too proud to change what they are doing or the way they do things.


Dr Tim was really open to learning from the fellows and he encouraged interaction in the best possible way. he constantly highlighted the fact that the hallmark of learning is to be in constant interaction and having an open mind. During his class on leadership I realised that more than everything else development work is beyond service; it is about participation and relationship.

Lessons from the President of Wagner College:

Dr. Richard Guarasci is always a reflection of a happy man, (why won’t he be happy.. he has been married to a wonderful wife for over 40 years). Hosting us in his office with great view of nature and the bridge, he brings a different perspective to the beautiful ocean view which we all admire from our different positions in his office. Beyond the view he reflected that the ocean reminds him of the failure, challenge and promise of the American people – this is what the people who travel through this path represent everyday.

SIRIS leadership model: Lessons from YALI Fellows

My friends , colleagues and now partners from other African countries are one of the most awesome set of people I have met. They represent not just the hope of a great African future but they are solutions to the challenges of Africa today. Everyone talks about what they do and how they want to learn and do more. We are not divided by culture, religion, greed, extremism or belief. Rather everyone is united with so much enthusiasm to learn and share. How about Mirielle from Congo and Adama the guy from Mali who talks extensively on how to unite young people from this region and ensure they end the animosity between their countries. Everyone knew so much about #BringBackOurGirls and they all extend their suppo
rt and empathy to the Nigerian girls. During the leadership class, fellows expressed what leadership meant to them and I summarised it all as SIRIS an acronym for Structure, Influence, Responsibility, Impact and Sustainability.

I will write more about my thought on the SIRIS leadership model in the coming weeks but I want to say here that in the last one week the fellows have taught me that it is important to work on building institutions and ensuring that we have accountable and transparent STRUCTURES. Even though we must always realise that the issue of INFLUENCE is not about self-promotion we should always strive to affect people positively and always be humble enough so as to allow ourselves to be affected positively. It is not about doing it for others, it is about doing it with them. Our beneficiaries are the main experts, so we have equal stake, and don’t forget the best way to influence people is to be ready to collaborate and deliberate. Whatever happens, however it happens we must take RESPONSIBILITY for our actions and words. As responsible persons, we should work hard not to compromise. Making positive IMPACT should wake us up everyday and drive us to achieving our goal of a healthy, just and productive society. Therefore from the onset we should realise that progress must be the constant so we must always be concerned about SUSTAINABILITY in our thinking, planning, implementation, evaluation and reporting.

Lest I forget to say, we all enjoyed the World cup. Most of us wanted Ghana to Win the USA and we probably all felt Nigeria should thrash Iran 5 – 0. It did not happen and we had a good joke of why South Africa had to rest after hosting in 2010. Our heart is in Africa, Our brain in America and our Support travels far away to Brazil. Even though some ladies here are asking if Chelsea FC or Manchester United qualified for the Next round of the world cup. We all watch the game together when we have time. The most important lessons from the first week still resonate… never stop learning, collaborating and making impact.


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The views expressed above are solely that of the author 

Owolabi shares lessons from Washington Fellowship programme for Young African Leaders