Today is August 20th, day nine of my Professional Development Experience or as some people still like to call it, my internship… But that’s another topic for discussion, which I may address at a later time lest I digress. .. I am both exhausted and fulfilled. While my excitement is still very tangible, I decided my exhaustion is worth putting aside for the sake of sharing tales.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship awarded a Professional Development Experience (PDE) to 100 of the 500 young Africans that spread across the US since June. Most Americans who never heard of the Young African Leadership Initiative (#YALI2015) were somewhat forgiven for stopping and staring a little too much at the group of colorful Africans in the neighborhoods around Florida International University, University of Nevada Reno, Clark Atlanta University, Dartmouth and Northwestern to name a few. Like most Mandela fellows I made it my sworn
duty to explain to everyone who could spare a minute that I, Eldine Chilembo, would be meeting the president of these United States and why I had earned it. So when the opportunity came and 500 young Africans were in one place at the same time, it was everything I had wanted and more. I put my networking hat on and set out to forge long lasting relationships. It seemed no one was playing around, we all wanted the same things and it was refreshing. Little did I know, that event was only the beginning for me.
My PDE happened, well is happening… and yes, it has exceeded my expectations and allowed me to set new objectives, to forge new goals and to define new parameters. It has forced me out of my comfort zone and into a space I never knew was available to me. And so my journey of growth as a Young African Leader has begun… Remember how I said, this is only day nine? Well, in nine days, I have sat in the most senior briefings in the US department of transportation. I have constantly, to quote a popular American-phrase, “seen how the sausage is made”. I have had insight into what goes into planning for meetings. I have learned the value of teamwork and of listening to every opinion. I have learned that no answer is wrong. I have seen policy frameworks come to life, sat in conference meetings that get things done. Sat in meetings where tough questions are asked and tougher answers are given. I have learned that America cares… That although like every country’s need to maintain its sovereignty, this administration also cares very much about harmonizing its policies and regulations to fit global standards.
I walked into the Office of the Secretary of Transportation focused on working on my interests in advancing women in maritime issues as well as maritime security. Nine days later, I see a bigger picture slowly taking shape. I want to learn more about the challenges taking place within the transportation industry as a whole. I have reached out to my fellows in the business sector in an effort to understand the importance of trade and investment hubs available in Africa. I am learning to develop SMART goals when implementing organizational structures. I have come to love research work (and that in itself is the greatest testimony for all who know me). I now know that the United States through its AGOA act, allows a select group of African countries free trade when importing to the USA. I have always known of the parallels between aviation and navigation, but more so today than I did nine days ago. I have seen different departments come together and share similar challenges. I have seen senior officers and officials seek the advice of technical officers. I have felt welcome, appreciated, accepted and respected for my (in my opinion) limited expertise. Just today, I sat in two briefings/strategic meetings involving the most senior policy makers in the Department of Transportation, and on the ninth floor too (the ninth floor is where the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx is)! Can you imagine my nerves!!! I was conscious of every breath I took, every growling sound coming from my stomach… and allow me to digress here. Is It just me or does our stomach suddenly remember it is hungry during those really silent meetings because this always happens to me. Mostly at church when everyone is quietly meditating or at a management meeting where I am the only junior person with a singing stomach. I have a love-hate relationship with food because of that!
Looks like I will have to leave the “intern” story for another time. This has been a mouth full and yet I am still overwhelmed. How will I ever explain the feeling of hearing from the Deputy Assistant Secretary that you are good enough to be a maritime adviser to the department? Yes, I had to slip that one in. It was an overwhelming moment and it made me believe in myself a lot more. It is also a very scary position to be in. I am still so young and have a lot to learn, but encouragement like this really does help me keep moving forward.
I will end with a quote from my now supervisor at the department, Sheila. I know now that even if she hadn’t already been established as my mentor from day one, I would seek her out almost immediately!
A real leader is someone who can embrace the role that they are in at whatever level they find themselves
– Sheila Helton-Ingram, DoT – OST
So may you wear your leaders hat, wherever you are…