Inspired by America, they’re heading home with big plans

Liseli Muyenga, 23, plans on helping orphaned adolescent girls in her native Zambia, while Kawtar Kounda, 20, of Morocco, intends to focus on educating girls in rural areas.

Both young women say they are more confident after spending five weeks in the United States with 78 other women from around the world. They studied at American universities and colleges through the State Department’s Study of the U.S. Institutes for Student Leaders program, focusing on the theme of women’s leadership.

They honed their leadership skills and learned about historic women in U.S. politics, economics, culture and society.

Muyenga, who studied at the University of Delaware, said one of her most treasured experiences was volunteering at a center for people with disabilities. There, she met a fellow volunteer who is 97 years old. “I learned a lot from her,” said Muyenga, adding that the experience inspires her to “make a difference in this world.”

Kounda, who studied at the University of Kansas, said she will never forget visiting Hallmark Cards Inc., a U.S. company based in Kansas City, Missouri. “As a business student, it was my first visit to a big and successful company, and I was impressed by their approaches to management and organization,” Kounda said.

Woman writing on an easel as seated group looks at another woman (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Participants in the Study of the U.S. Institute on Women’s Leadership at the 2017 program’s kick-off conference in Washington (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Many of the women, including 21-year-old Sara Nouman from Jordan, look to the U.S. as a model for women’s empowerment. “I’m interested in the history of America’s struggle with women’s rights and how far they have come, and how it’s still a part of the conversation today,” said Nouman.

The program kicked off with a cultural festival and a conference in Washington. From there, the women traveled to one of four universities in the states of Delaware, Indiana, Kansas or Washington for the academic portion of the program.

“We learned to laugh even in the toughest of times, work together as a system, live with diversity, tackle new challenges, and build a network with other participants around the world,” said 19-year-old Roohafza Zarabi of Afghanistan. The experience prompted her to pursue a master’s degree in leadership.

Lynda Varmah, 22, from Liberia, says she will return to her country with the conviction to “always stand for something that will bring a positive change to the world.”

In addition to taking classes, participants spent a weekend with host families, received professional mentorship, volunteered in the local community and soaked up American culture. They enjoyed lake trips, Fourth of July parades and bike rides.

While in Chicago, 22-year-old Sundus Ismail of Iraqi Kurdistan marveled at the diversity she witnessed. “It was outstanding for me because the faces were like a painting, full of colors, black, white, brown,” she said. “I saw the diversity aspect of the American Dream in Chicago, and it was real.”

Many of the women found it difficult to say goodbye. “There were a lot of tears,” recalled Dania Razak, 20, of Iraq, but they were also excited to return home and get to work.

As 21-year-old Sandy Edwar from Egypt said, “I do have the ability and the connections to start something here to help my people.”