By Elena Oprea, CIEE Work & Travel USA participant and Civic Leadership Summit fellow, 2015
In 2015, I participated in the Work & Travel USA program. That year, I was selected to attend the Civic Leadership Summit (CLS). It was at CLS that I became one of the 2.1 million visitors to the White House. For a humble 20 year old student from Moldova, that was watching american movies all her adolescence, visiting Washington D.C. was a long-anticipated event. Even so, I never dreamt about meeting the President of the United States because it seemed something impossible. But how was I to know that my exchange experience with CIEE would create that possibility for me?
Just 4 years later I got an email from the Obama Foundation inviting me to join the Obama Town Hall Europe event in Berlin; an event where President Barack Obama would be addressing 300 young emerging leaders from private, public and nonprofit institution to discuss the future of Europe.
How would you feel getting such an email?
First, I thought it was spam- I couldn’t believe it was real. Second, when it proved to be true my inner voice was saying: You? A young emerging leader of Europe? Could it be? Finally, I have got an email from CIEE explaining that they had nominated me for this opportunity. They nominated CIEE exchange program alumni to attend this event and, due in part to my recent involvement with CIEE eLab in London, I was one of them. And that was the cherry on the cake. I realized it was real, it was true, and it was going to happen for me.
I attended the Town Hall Berlin in April of 2019. And, after returning to London, I have had a chance to think about what this “once in a lifetime” opportunity and experience has meant to me:
1. The diversity of the political landscape and, in this case, having a diverse group of young leaders is crucial in shaping the future. As a representative of the business sector, it was eye-opening to meet and share experiences with young leaders from the public sector or the non-governmental sector such as Gresë Koca - the co-founder of “Keep it Green”, a small NGO in Kosovo. She is also a CIEE alumni who did Work & Travel USA and CLS, like me. Learning about her NGO made me understand that small businesses like the one I am working for can play a significant role in expanding the impact of NGOs like Gresë’s and more collaborations like this one can facilitate sustainable change.
2. Finding the solution of a problem starts with how we formulate the questions. The event ended with a Q&A session and, as a business person, I could feel the idealism in the questions asked. It felt good to hear about the vision for the future of Europe but also I noticed a lack of practicality. The solution I saw for this problem lies in one of the leadership theories taught in business schools regarding the visionars, the executors, and the processors. It says that foundational to an organisations success is to make sure these 3 types of leaders work together:
- The visionars: the source of big ideas;
- The executors: the people who get stuff done;
- The processors: those people that are very effective at setting up structures and systems needed to support an organization's objectives.
3. It’s time for topics such as Artificial Intelligence and the role of social media and its effects on the population to be included in political discussions. There is a great deal of public concern about the effects of developing technology on people’s physical health, mental health and safety. I hope to see more high-ranking policymakers come out with a clear sense on the right interaction between computer science, government, and society at large that will help shape or re-share the development of technologies to address society’s needs.
The experience of meeting Europe’s emerging leaders and President Barack Obama helped me become deeply aware of the responsability I have as a leader and the power I have to be a “changemaker”. These are the same values that CIEE instilled in me- from my experience on Work & Travel USA, to my time at CLS, to the present with my mentoring activity at CIEE Entrepreneurship Lab.
Following the Town Hall Berlin event, CIEE connected me with another CIEE alum from Moldova and together we started brainstorming on how local startups can benefit from my network and expertise in the UK startup ecosystem (Connect with me on Linkedin to find out more about that). To sum up, I am feeling inspired! I want the call to action of my story to be about impact: mind the impact of your leadership because “leadership is not about the next election, it’s about the next generation” (Simon Sinek).
When I reflect on this experience, I remember that I started working with the CIEE eLab because I felt very grateful for my experience in the U.S. and I wanted to “give back” or “pay it forward” – however, it was I who received even more. As a CIEE alum, I never thought that a connection like this could have been formed with my J-1 visa sponsor. It feels like a big international family. Meeting other CIEE exchange alumni has shown me that a few committed young leaders can create an exponential global impact.