Being selected as one of eight Jamaican YLAI Fellows in 2018 was undoubtedly one of the major highlights of my year. The experience I had during my exchange in Denver, Colorado, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies in Detroit, Michigan and Washington D.C. was nothing short of awe-inspiring. I met and connected with some of the most of the most remarkable people from across the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as in the United States. And as if that alone wasn’t good enough, I walked away learning and gaining SO MUCH personally and professionally from my YLAI experience. Now that I have successfully completed my 5 week on-the-ground Fellowship in the U.S., I am sharing a few tips for future and incoming YLAI Fellows to help them seize and make the best of this immense opportunity.
1. Firstly, set your goals and expectations for the program.
Between working your day job at your placement host, completing weekly assignments and mandatory meetings, running your business back home, and trying to explore the sights and sounds of your new city, being selected as a YLAI Fellow comes with pretty rigid schedule. With all this, it becomes easy to simply drift along from one thing to the next, and potentially lose sight of why you applied for the Fellowship in the first place.
Prior to departing Jamaica for our Fellowship, my 2018 cohort of Jamaican YLAI Fellows and I met to set our intentions and goals for the program with each other. This “goal sharing session” proved to be incredibly helpful, as we all discussed the challenges we were having personally and in our businesses, and created an accountability system to work on these together, during and after the program. Additionally, we brought in other Jamaican YLAI Fellows from previous cohorts to share their personal experiences with us and tips to ensure that we maximized the opportunity we were given.
During our time apart as we completed our Fellowship in our individual city hubs (mine was Denver, Colorado), my 2018 cohort of Jamaican Fellows and I made sure to keep in constant contact with each other via our WhatsApp group and celebrated each win and worked through every single issue that either of us had, together.
2. Be assertive and prepare to advocate for yourself if needs be.
All YLAI experiences are not created equal. Being in a new country, in a new city, surrounded by new, unfamiliar people can itself prove to be challenging, which makes cultivating the best possible experience for yourself during your Fellowship even more important. If you make sure to set your goals and intentions for the program, as mentioned previously, then you’ll have a pretty clear indication of whether or not you are receiving the experience that you had hoped for. And if you aren’t, you have to be prepared to not only speak up, but also to advocate for the changes you need to have a better experience.
While in Denver, after going to work at her placement company for almost two weeks, my roommate realized that the company did not align at all with her goals for the program. We chatted it over for a bit and I encouraged her to speak to both her placement host and our city host about seeking a change. She did, and while she didn’t end up get a new job placement, she was able to stop going to work for the company and used her time instead to set up meetings with other people who were more closely aligned with her goals.
Additionally, one of my Jamaican Fellows had an issue with a bed bug infestation in her city hub. She shared the details with us in our WhatsApp group and added that she had not been receiving the support she needed from her city host. We all offered up a few solutions for her and I then helped her to craft an email to the YLAI Program Director in D.C. outlining the situation and what assistance she needed. Within 24 hours, she had a new hotel room, received medical assistance and had her luggage items replaced.
3. Prioritize the program.
Again, being in a new city can be pretty exciting. There will be lots to do and so such much to see in just four short weeks. However, the program should always remain your first and foremost priority, because while you may in the future have the opportunity to again visit that city and explore on your own dime and time, becoming a YLAI Fellow is a once in a lifetime opportunity. There are no repeats or second chances.
The YLAI Program, though the schedule is sometimes hectic, is designed in such a way that each week, with each assignment, task or meeting, you are forced to get clear on not only the work you have been doing, but also the direction of your company and self. It is imperative that you take full advantage of this opportunity to grow your knowledge, capacity and network by prioritizing a successful completion of your Fellowship above attractions and activities. Yes, of course, have fun, but remember why you are there in the first place. You only have one shot. Make it count!
4. Initiate meetings with companies/entrepreneurs you would like to meet ahead of your arrival.
For 5 weeks, you will be supported and backed by U.S. Department of State. If that’s not leverage to get your foot in the door and a seat at the table, I don’t know what is. Ensure that you take full advantage of that!
A few of my favorite memories and the most meaningful connections I was able to make during my YLAI Fellowship have been some of the meetings I was able to land with people (community leaders, entrepreneurs, political leaders, etc.) who would otherwise have been almost inaccessible to me without an introduction from my city host, placement host or being backed by the U.S. State Department.
Prior to leaving your home country, ensure that you research potential companies in your city hub that are aligned with your goals and the work you do, and connect with them via social media or email. Be sure to introduce yourself as a YLAI Fellow being supported by the U.S. Department of State, share which dates you will be arriving in your city hub, and state what you would like to meet with them about and why.
Additionally, you may ask your city host for recommendations outside of your job placement that are aligned with your company and goals, whom would be good to potentially meet with in your personal time.
5. Be adaptable to changes.
Nothing in life ever goes according to plan our as hoped, so be prepared to pivot as necessary if or when your plans fall apart or get delayed. Always think: what is my next best step?
6. Enjoy Your YLAI Journey!
Finally, congrats! Being selected as a YLAI Fellow is no easy feat. Thousands apply, but only a couple hundred are selected. Being among the chosen few is something to relish and bask in, and certainly something to enjoy. Bring a journal and try to record as much of the experience as you possibly can. Oh, and take pictures of EVERYTHING! 🙂
If you have any questions about the YLAI application process or overall program, leave a comment below or reach out to me here and let’s chat! I’m always eager to help.