Youth empowers peers, helping them 'spread their wings and fly'

Story by Jennie Gulian / Photos by Laura Reinhardt

Penn State sophomore and World Vision Youth Empowerment Program (YEP) alumna Yemi Olugbuyi is motivating other students to create positive change in their lives and communities.

Yemi Olugbuyi

Through World Vision's Youth Empowerment Program, Yemi Olugbuyi is empowering other college students to create positive change in their lives and communities.

During the past school semester, Yemi started a YEP chapter on the Penn State campus in Schuylkill, Pennsylvania. YEP focuses on helping youth develop skills in leadership, civic engagement, critical thinking, advocacy, and team building.

Starting the chapter has been a major undertaking for the 19-year-old student. First, she worked to get YEP recognized as an official campus activity. She then recruited students, facilitated training sessions, and helped shape their community engagement activities. She even tweaked the YEP curriculum, originally for students between ages 14-18, designing it to be more appropriate for college-age students.

As the year progressed, the four young men and four young women who participated did not miss any of the semiweekly meetings. Yemi started a tradition of opening each session with the same question: What did you do this week that you’re proud of?

Making her voice heard

The students joined YEP because they each had a passion for a particular cause, whether it was exposing racism, promoting educational reform, or reducing drug and alcohol abuse.

Yemi believes that youth should be involved in shaping the course of their future. When she was a junior in high school, she was introduced to World Vision and YEP in her hometown of Washington, D.C.

"I felt [at that time] as though young people didn't have a voice, and I thought I was the only young person who thought that," Yemi said.

After completing the year-long YEP curriculum, Yemi was anxious to find different ways to do advocacy work. "I knew I was smart, and I have friends who are smart. I got it and my friends got it—that the world is bigger than us. You don't have to wait until you're older to make your voice heard."

Starting the conversation

As a high school senior, Yemi worked with Raimon Nelson, her mentor and World Vision's youth engagement specialist in Washington, D.C., to start a World Vision MOVE (Make Our Voices Echo) campaign that brought youth and adults together to discuss issues "that are not always talked about."

At least once a month, youth and adults met to perform—sing, rap, or read poetry—on social reform topics such as "mis-education" and youth violence.

The Penn State YEP group picked up Yemi's enthusiasm for engaging the community. They challenged fellow students to answer two questions: How are you changing the world? And what are you passionate about? They hung the answers in a temporary gallery exhibit on campus. “It got people talking,” said Yemi.

Letting them fly

Much of what Yemi has learned about leadership came from Nelson and from the YEP curriculum. One of the most helpful strategies is also the toughest, she noted. The "step up, step down" strategy calls for a leader to know when to step down, allowing new people to lead.

"If you're not training others to be leaders, you're not really a good leader," Yemi said. "You have to let them spread their wings and fly, but still be there to support them."

"After three years, I'm still learning," she adds. "I always want to step up. It's hard."

For the past two years, Yemi has continued developing her leadership skills as a member of World Vision's National Youth Advisory Council (NYAC). In June, she represented the United States at the World Vision Regional Forum in Toronto, which also included delegates from Canada and Mexico. This summer, she will participate with youth from the Navajo Nation in a NYAC mission trip to New Mexico.

A lot to balance

In the fall, Yemi will form a new group, hoping to spread YEP to several of Penn State's 20 undergraduate campuses. Sixty percent of Penn State students spend two years on one campus before heading to another. Yemi will focus on training freshmen at Schuylkill as YEP leaders who will likewise form their own groups on other campuses.

Right now, Yemi says her life is centered on advocacy work and academics. Though college has been an adjustment, the biggest challenge has been paying for it. As the fifth of eight children—her parents and four older siblings emigrated from Nigeria—she is responsible for her expenses.

She was awarded a World Vision scholarship for the past two years that helps pay tuition. This summer, she is working as a ride operator at Six Flags America near Washington, D.C. Next year, she will be a resident assistant, which will pay the utilities at her student apartment. She's also on the waiting list for work-study.

It all seems a little overwhelming, even for someone who's committed to changing the world.

"It's a lot to balance," she said. "But at the end of the day, it's worth it."




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