On Carrying a Youth Leadership Movement Through Uncertainty

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I am the Global President of AIESEC, the world’s largest youth-led organization focused on developing leadership in young people through the facilitation of cross-cultural internships and volunteer experiences.

For the past year, that has meant travelling the world to represent over 80,000 youth in over 110 countries and territories who either go abroad for cross-cultural exchanges through AIESEC or who facilitate these exchanges as members of the organization annually. 

Lately, it has meant video calls (“hello, can you hear me?”)

At 26 years old, I am now leading a global organization through a pandemic. 

How does it feel to live through a global pandemic? I think it is different for each of us…

How does it feel to lead an organization through a global pandemic? I think it is different for each hour of the day…

António Guterres, the current Secretary-General of the United Nations, has called COVID-19 the “greatest test” humanity has faced since World War II. 

I joined AIESEC as a volunteer member in 2012. For the past eight years, I have been told, learned, and told to others the story of how AIESEC was founded as a direct response to World War II, not unlike the United Nations, with an ambition of preventing similar conflicts. 

AIESEC was founded for exactly this moment in human history. This pandemic is not stopping us from being AIESEC, it is the moment we truly can be AIESEC, an organization striving for “peace and fulfilment of humankind’s potential.”

When I think of the stories of AIESEC in crisis told to me by our members and alumni over the years, I think of them as the exact challenges we needed to be strong enough to face the greatest challenge of them all: today

The past seven decades of AIESEC were just a practice test, today is the real exam. 

Poland. On 14 March 1980, a plane crashed shortly before landing in Warsaw, with no survivors. On the flight was the six-person national team of AIESEC in Poland and, in these pre-internet days, they carried with them all the documentation of the international exchanges Poland was able to arrange while attending a global AIESEC conference. In an instant, the volunteer Local Chapter Presidents in the entity had to step up to form a national team and begin running the organization. Today, AIESEC in Poland continues. 

South Africa. During apartheid, the nearly 50 years of institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa, university campuses were segregated as “black”, “white”, “coloured.” From its founding, AIESEC in South Africa operated on “black”, “white”, and “coloured” university campuses, refusing to compromise the values of AIESEC in the face of the external pressures of apartheid. Today, AIESEC in South Africa continues. 

The United States. In the economic aftermath of the Dot-Com Bubble burst in the United States in the late 1990s, the national team of AIESEC had to sit together in a circle and decide who would stay and who would leave the team in New York City. The next ten years would be called “the dark ages” as the entity recovered. Today, AIESEC in the United States continues. 

Nepal. On 15 April 2015, a devastating earthquake shook Nepal. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the AIESEC volunteers in the country were offered flights to return to their home countries but many opted to stay in the country. A series of AIESEC volunteer projects were branded to “Rebuild Nepal” and the entity actually welcomed more volunteers to Nepal after the earthquake than they had before. Today, AIESEC in Nepal continues. 

None of these events is comparable in scale to the current global crisis we face, yet in their own time, they seemed insurmountable. Nevertheless, AIESEC continued. 

What keeps an organization, staffed entirely by youth and almost entirely by volunteers, active and coherent for 72 years? Well, ask AIESECers from the past seven decades and they will try to describe it in their own words but today, as an organization, we call it youth leadership

We believe that leadership is the fundamental solution and it can be developed in anyone. 

In 1953, just five years after AIESEC was founded, AIESEC’s annual International Congress was hosted in Nurnberg, Germany. The official report of the International Congress includes an article on “AIESEC Optimism.”

“We know that there will be no slackening in AIESEC activities despite the tremendous strain on all of us.”

The article speaks to the “unreservedly best thing” about AIESEC: the “conscious will and the co-operation of an international body” of young people. 

The true measure of an AIESECer is what they can do when they are tired, as “obstacles, after all, call for effort.”

In 1948, after two world wars, a group of young people came together, determined that cross-cultural understanding was essential to prevent similar conflicts, and established AIESEC. 

In 2020, AIESEC continued. 

Alexandra Robinson is the Global President of AIESEC, a global, youth-led organization focused on developing leadership in young people through the facilitation of cross-cultural internships and volunteer experiences. AIESEC is present in over 120 countries and territories, annually facilitating over 40,000 cross-cultural exchanges with a membership of over 40,000 young people.

To learn more about AIESEC, go to aiesec.org. If you are a young person, let your voice be heard by taking the YouthSpeak Survey


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