YLI Stories and Testimonials 

(Note:  Names have been changed.)

Out of Her Cultural Comfort Zone: Kia's Story

When I joined YLI, not only was I exposed to multiculturalism, I was forced to interact with it,  to recognize it,  understand it,  challenge it,  and to be responsible about it, at a very young age.
YLI created a healthy space to challenge my worldview, my identity, and my understanding of people who were different from me. I got to interact and became friends with Black, Latino, Karen, Native American, and other Hmong students and this changed my personal stereotypes about persons from these ethnic backgrounds. The retreats gave me the opportunity to be intimate and vulnerable about my own identity (not just culturally; my identity as a female, as an immigrant, as a low-income child living off welfare), as well as allowed space for me to be receptive and respectful of others' identities (whether they were GLBT, sexually abused, physically abused, homeless, etc). I realized that we had a lot more in common than differences.

YLI Gave Her Tools

I think it was fitting that YLI was the last structured extra-curricular program I participated in before heading out to college because YLI prepared me with a whole range of intercultural communicative repertoire. When I arrived in college (St. Ben's), I was equipped with tools to navigate a predominately white institute.  I don't think I knew exactly how to use all the tools I learned from YLI correctly then, but I knew I had the tools within me, and I think that was the important piece. Throughout college I had the opportunity to practice using those tools as I studied abroad in India and China and taught in Hong Kong. What tools am I talking about? Here's a few I can recall right now (though this list is not sufficient):
*Action Team - how to implement theory into practice
*Cultural Exploration - how to move beyond my ethnocentric lens
*Leaving a legacy - how do I want to show up in the world?
*Cross-cultural leadership - how can I build teamwork across culture
Now that I'm thinking about it, I honestly think YLI served as a fundamental platform for me to become curious about human interactions across culture, race, ethnicity, and gender.

Exactly Where She's Supposed to Be 

I'm currently studying Intercultural Communication within Education at U Penn. In many ways, I feel like my entire life and all the experiences I've had has led me here. I feel like I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be in life. In my field, I have the amazing opportunity to meet and interact with many people from all over the world (China, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Bangladesh, Iran, UK, Canada, Argentina, etc)and from all walks of life. I have the privilege of expanding my communicative repertoire as I code-switch from Hmong to English to Chinese to Spanish to Hindi/Bengali.
I simultaneously enlarge my understanding of the language, food, pop culture references and celebrities, and religious practices of ethnicities beyond my own. I also have the honor of sharing my cultural identity as a Hmong, American, & Hmong-American with the people I interact with and they get to learn of a history that is absent in history books.
I honestly think I owe a great deal of my success, at least my intercultural success, to YLI. Because I learned and practiced these intercultural communication interactions so early in life, I am comfortable and confident in my own skin now. Because I was able to interact with diversity and inclusion at a young age, I recognized and understood the challenges about it. Because I learned in YLI to be responsible about my own bias and stereotypes of others, I am able to stop and reflect on how I am categorizing people.”
Kia is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

I was Afraid of our Differences: Sheng’s Story  

In 2013, recent YLI graduate Sheng was awarded a Gates Millennium Scholarship—a full ride to the college of her choice. Sheng was one of 1,000 youth to receive this award out of 54,000 applicants, a tremendous testament to her leadership and her potential. The fact that Sheng is the first person in her family to attend college makes this award all the more powerful—it and YLI have changed the trajectory of her life. Here is what Sheng wrote in her Gates Millennial Scholar application:

Including this year, I have dedicated three years to the Youth Leadership Initiative (YLI) program. YLI is a nine month program for high school youth in Saint Paul starting from October until June. They believe that having youth lead youth is powerful, and emphasize this by creating a youth leadership team to lead many parts of the program. YLI has given me an experience in working closely with a diverse group of about 85 youth and adults in my community who have passion to create change. By the end of each year, YLI is not only a program, but has become one humongous family.

Working with Youth who are Passionate about their Community

My life was heavily influenced in just the first year I spent at YLI. Before YLI, I was always afraid to talk to youth of other races because I was afraid of our differences. Through working with people of other ethnicities, I found the similarities in our differences. I learned to love being in YLI because it gave me the opportunity to work closely with youth who were as passionate about their community as I am.
I met many people during my first year in YLI and created strong friendships with them; they inspired me to be my authentic self, encouraging me to let go of the masks I wore to cover my fears and embrace the things that made me unique; they challenged me to develop leadership skills such as public speaking, and standing up for the things I believe in.

All it Takes is Positivity to Impact Someone’s Life

In college, I am going to study Education and Human Development. YLI’s impressions on me have inspired me to go into a field that will let me work closely with youth to touch their lives as YLI has done for me. I have been a part of and seen youth turn their life from drugs, alcohol, and ditching school, into A-students who make healthy decisions.
I believe that all it takes to positively impact someone’s life is having someone to believe that all their hard work does not go unseen, that their decisions and opinions matter, and that their voice is a wise one, they just need to speak stronger. I do not believe that as my senior year comes to a close, my experience working with youth will also come to an end. As one door closes, another door will open, and I know that college will present me with even more opportunities to work with youth.
Sheng is currently a student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Currently, she is interested in a career in youth development.

An Unlikely Youth Mentor: Maria’s Story

This story is told by YLI Director, Nou Yang.
I would like to tell you the story of Maria. Before joining Wilder’s Youth Leadership Initiative, or YLI, Maria was a negative and angry person. She is from a large family and has lots of responsibilities. 
Maria lives in a rough neighborhood—crime rates are high, the streets are not safe to wander, and there are frequent fights. Maria was one of those girls who would instigate a fight because of the way people looked at her or because her younger sisters were being bullied. Being one of the older ones among her siblings, she was very protective of her family. 
Maria’s family doesn’t have a lot of money. Often, she couldn’t buy new clothes. Once, Maria stole from a department store because she was desperate and sick and tired of never being able to buy anything.

Her Plan was to Get Kicked Out

One day Maria was caught smoking on school property and was assigned a probation officer, who referred her to YLI to complete hours of community service. Maria was unhappy about the required community service and her plan was to get kicked out of the program.
But once in YLI, for the first time in her life, Maria met people who treated her with respect, listened to what she had to say, asked her questions, recognized her potential and welcomed her contributions. She developed her potential, acted upon it, and thrived! Not only did she complete the first year of the program, she was peer-nominated to be a Youth Mentor, and stayed on for an additional two years. Youth Mentors work in partnership with staff to plan and implement curriculum for high school youth. One year Maria worked with the Child Abuse and Violence Action Team to create a non-violence curriculum that was delivered to other teens in Saint Paul. Besides facilitating activities, Youth Mentors lead other teens to self-discovery, challenging them to break through their limitations, and modeling positive youth in action. 

Not an Enemy but a Human Being

During her last year in the program, Maria offered to go with me around her neighborhood to post recruitment fliers for the upcoming year. She really wanted more of the teens in her community to join YLI. Upon picking her up, Maria’s younger sister told me that Maria was in a fight over the weekend but that YLI had changed Maria forever.  

Once we were alone, Maria told me about the incident. Over the weekend Maria had gotten into a fight with a girl from the neighborhood who had been bothering her sisters. At some point Maria zoned out everyone around them and focused on the girl she was on top of and punching. In a moment of clarity, Maria saw the person she was fighting not as an enemy, but as a human being. The girl she was fighting was covered in blood; Maria realized she wanted to stop the fight. Maria asked the girl if she would just walk away if she stopped. The girl nodded yes and Maria stood up and walked away despite their friends and sisters encouraging them to continue the fight. They each went their own way. 

This was the first time that Maria has ever stopped during a fight. Maria told me that she holds inside of her a lot of anger and she used to explode on people. Maria realized that she is no longer the person she used to be. Now she is a leader in the community, and she recognizes that she has a standard she must live up to; and a way of behaving she must model for others. She wants to make sure that other teens get the opportunity she had through YLI: to learn that there are people who care about you and to have hope for the future.

I am so proud of Maria. Her story is only one but the legacy she is leaving behind in the lives she touches is immeasurable. In working with young people, we have a great opportunity and this is the kind of impact we hope to make in our community—to develop a generation of leaders that are committed to contributing their talents to building a thriving, inclusive and multicultural Saint Paul.
Maria graduated from high school and is enrolled at a local Technical College exploring career options.

What Does it Take to Be a Leader?: Nick’s Story

 In an essay about leadership, YLI participant Nick reflected on the following:
What is a leader? Before my experience in YLI, I would have said a leader had to be commanding and overflowing with confidence. A leader would take control of a situation, be assertive, and conquer any task thrown at them without a moment’s hesitation.

I’ve Learned So Much

I have learned since participating in YLI, there’s no such thing as a “cookie-cutter” leader. Entering the program, I would have never considered myself a leader because I was passive and didn’t succeed at everything. However, through the months of being in the program, I’ve learned so much not only about what being a leader means, but about myself.
At our last retreat, this notion became crystal clear to me, when I was met with a huge challenge: the high ropes course. Everyone who was there will tell you I was petrified. To me, how could someone this scared and unwilling to participate be a leader? But, as the day progressed, I became a strong source of support to my peers. I have realized that a leader is not only the archetypical aggressive, go-getter, but the supporting players who are able not only to push themselves, but those around them.

From a Quiet Guy to a Respected Leader

Not only did Nick notice his transformation from a quiet guy to becoming a natural supporter of others, his peers noticed the change in him as well. After Nick’s first year in YLI, he was peer-nominated to be an Emerging Leader and later to become a Youth Mentor to help lead the program for new peer participants. He uses his analytical and reflective nature to design and facilitate curriculum, contribute to effective team work and event planning.
Because of the multicultural nature of YLI, Nick has been able to learn about cultures and build lasting friendships of different ethnic backgrounds—something he values very much. Nick is one of the most respected youth leaders in the program.
Here is what Nick’s mother said about how YLI has changed him:
I will never forget the day that Nick’s Dad and I attended the year-end program in 2012. Nick keeps to himself at home and we saw him as a bright, but introverted person who stayed in the background. We could not have been more surprised to arrive at the event and find that Nick was the “go to guy” and the emcee for the evening! He handled the patter and the PowerPoint like a pro without a trace of anxiety. He had transformed from a follower to a leader! The imprint this program has left on him is deep and will last a lifetime. He’s become curious about the world and other cultures, built relationships that would not have otherwise been possible, and become a stronger and more compassionate person. We are so proud and will be forever grateful to Wilder for embracing him in this program.
 Nick currently is a freshman at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, and hopes to major in English.


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