Saturday, 9 August 2014

Global Young Leaders Conference – June/July 2014

From late June to early July this year, I was privileged enough to attend the annual Global Young Leaders Conference (GYLC) in Washington and New York, and I can confidently say it was one of the most incredible, memorable and beneficial experiences of my entire (albeit short) life.

Before I begin outlining all my adventures and fails (there were many), I just want to thank the people that encouraged (forced) me to hop on that plane and go off on my own to Washington. Because, in all honesty, I was so not excited to leave South Africa and spend my only holiday of a three-month term at a leadership conference, debating and arguing with some of the smartest kids in the world. Actually, I was freaked out of my mind. We’ll get to the lesson I learned about “being careful what you wish for” later.

From the Envision website and the letters I received from the advisors at the conference, GYLC seems like some super-serious, hectic, boring conference where the attendees draft proposals for world peace and start making plans to run for president. The pictures online are filled with serious-looking people leaning over serious-looking sheets of paper and chewing on the backs of pens as though their brains are about to explode from all the serious thought that is going down.

GYLC is so far from that. In fact, when I look back on my expectations I laugh so hard that my sides start to hurt and I start crying. It even makes me want to start using the word “lolz” out loud… Yuck.

There are some of my expectations that weren’t far from the truth. For example, we did have to wear professional clothing for about half of the time, which meant that I broke the bank and my mother’s sanity buying endless supplies of blazers and skirts. Do you know how hard it is to shop for a teenage girl whose standard items of clothing include her battered Converse, faded jeans and most probably a beanie? It’s hard. Throwing blazers into the equation makes it near impossible. And my father’s endless lectures on why I wasn’t allowed to take my Green Day ‘American Idiot’ tour T-shirt made it even worse.

Shopping wasn’t even the worst part about the preparations. Remember when I dared to use that awful cliché: “Be careful what you wish for”? Cringe. But it’s the only thing that can really sum up one of the two lessons I learned from what I like to call “The Visa Catastrophe”. The second one is that my parents should never question my paranoia ever again. I’m going to sum it up here, but do not fret; there will be a long blog about the entire experience in explicit detail coming soon. (I’ll post the link here.) Basically my dearest mother didn’t check my American visa properly, and the day before I was due to leave we discovered that it had expired four years ago. So I had to get an emergency visa and arrive to the conference a day late, not to mention that I had to fly all on my lonesome ownsome next to some Chinese man who I’m pretty sure was carrying some extreme form of swine flu. It was disgusting.

Oh, and then when I arrived at the airport in Washington, some little American girl from Alabama (who I ended up sitting next to when I insisted on switching seats, and who kept asking me things like, “So, like, do you go to school in buildings?” Bless her soul…) led me to the wrong terminal. This wouldn’t have been so bad if we were in a South African airport, but apparently American airports are the size of a small city. I had to catch a train to get to the right terminal, just like how in S.A. I have to catch a train to get from my house to the airport. Holy alien babies.

I got to the conference, though (shoutout to Chris, who picked me up from the airport and was an absolute miracle worker) and had a slight mental break down when I was alone in my room (my roommates were in a lecture so I had the shower to myself for 15 whole minutes – unheard of for the rest of the conference). I really had nothing to worry about. As soon as I walked into the hotel’s ballroom where lunch was being served, my friends spotted me and got me settled in. I had to explain the Visa Catastrophe about three hundred times, but I didn’t even mind.

There were over three hundred teenagers attending the conference from all over the world. I hadn’t even heard of some of the places they came from (not a surprise seeing as Geography was the first subject I dropped), like Kuwait. What? Kuwait? Like Kuai, the restaurant that serves wraps and smoothies? Nope… Like the country, dumbo, where the peasants are about three times richer than Jacob Zuma, apparently.

We were all split into groups of around twenty, and each group was allocated a country that they would represent in “simulations” (kind of like debates for world peace, except much more entertaining, depending on who you sat next to and whether they fell asleep or not). I was lucky enough to be put into the Japan group with another girl from my school, and we actually came home as better friends than before, and still hang out today. Everyone in my group was so friendly and incredible. Ironically enough, in the whole conference, the majority of people were Australians, and then South Africans, not Americans. 

There are so many memories I made, which obviously can’t all be mentioned here, but I’ll try name a few. In our first mock UN debate, one of our representatives got kicked out for trying to get Japan into a permanent seat on the Security Council. We had an “Olympics” evening, where our group lost miserably, but we had a hilarious time (but come on, throw three hundred nerds together and ask them to do an obstacle course? Of course we were going to fail desperately at the sporty stuff…). We debated in the United Nations building in New York, saw the White House and Times Square, and went to some of the greatest art museums in the world, as well as the Holocaust memorial. The cruise on the final night made me cry more than I did during the Visa Catastrophe. And I cried even harder on the plane flight home. Sitting typing this now, I can’t actually imagine a part of the conference I disliked. Sure, there were embarrassing moments (we had to do a “presentation”/skit on what we learned about our country and I won’t go into details but basically Japan was the laughing stock of the evening and perhaps the whole conference), but overall it was the best experience of my lifetime.

When I spoke to the three girls at my school that attended GYLC last year, I did not understand what they meant when they said they’d give anything to go back. I do now. I think I would seriously contemplate chopping off one of my fingers to be able to reunite with the friends I made there, because the concept of never being able to see them again makes me want to throw up. I even got Facebook just to keep in touch with them, and those of you who know me personally will be aware of what a big step that is for me – I see getting a Facebook account as the first step in giving in to society’s expectations. I have no words to fully describe what a phenomenal experience it was, and I urge any and all teenagers reading this to apply online to go sometime in the future. GYLC is a memory that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Thank you Japow-pow for giving me memories that will last
forever xx

Ask your teacher/mentor to nominate you here.

Update: It's been two years since I went on GYLC, and with the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn't really describe it as positively as I did here. Because this is one of the only GYLC-experience blogs out there, I get a lot of people contacting me because they're unsure of whether it will be "right" for them. If you're one of those people, I'd love to try answer your questions. I remember how conflicted I felt about the conference, and even then I had some people from my school to confront about their own experiences. 

The main point out of all of my advice, though, is that it's not a "conference" as such, so don't expect it to be one. It's weird. There's no proper way to explain it. There are conference elements, like the debating and learning how to interact within a multi-lateral organisation, but there are also fun activities like sight-seeing, talent shows, group bonding exercises and the like. The most "beneficial" part of the conference was the social aspect. If I had to tell you why you should go (which I don't want to, because so many people experience it differently), I would say that it's the people that make it worthwhile. Go make friends. Broaden your horizons and your understanding of the world. Interact with new, interesting people.

I hope this helps. Good luck, guys.


  1. I signed up for GYLC without researching much on it. Just last week I thought I should see what people on the internet think about it, I ended getting a ton of negative comments. Thank you for rekindling my hope in the program and I hope it's at least half as good as you explained it to be.

  2. I am still in doubt whether to attend this conference or not after reading the negative comments on internet.If you could tell me more about GYLC,I'd be grateful to you.

    1. Hi! Honestly, GYLC isn't for everyone. I know people that rave about it, and people that can't stop complaining about how awful it was. My experience was somewhere in between, and your own experience will be entirely reliant on your expectations, and whether those are met. The group of people you're with will also have a huge bearing on your overall enjoyment.

      I'll try give you as much information as I can, but this trip was a while ago, so forgive me for being a bit vague.

      Firstly, you'll need to have your expectations straight, as I said before. Don't go for the academic benefits. You won't get any credits, and if anything your marks will drop because of the time you take off school to prepare etc. Go for the experience of meeting new people and broadening your understanding of the world through interactions with students from different countries and backgrounds.

      As for the conference itself, you'll be sorted into "country groups" of about twenty people (depending on the size of the conference, of course). Throughout the conference, you'll enter debates as the country to which you've been assigned, and learn how multi-lateral organisations like the UN function. Sometimes it's difficult. Sometimes you'll be pushed out of your comfort zone, especially if you're like me and try to avoid being the centre of attention. But the aim is for you to become comfortable in those types of situations.

      You'll be taken on sightseeing trips, but don't expect too much from those. When I went, it was boiling hot, so we spent five minutes tops at each location. I hardly saw anything in New York, because there just wasn't any time, and we were staying outside of the city itself.

      I hope this helps. Don't worry too much about it, though. I was expecting to hate it, and it really wasn't that bad. But it's up to you to decide whether the kind of course it offers will be beneficial, or whether you'll want to go halfway across the world just to make a couple of new friends.

      - Amy

  3. I am still in doubt whether to attend this conference or not after reading the negative comments on internet.If you could tell me more about GYLC,I'd be grateful to you.

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  5. Hey, just wondering whether or not you guys were allowed to go out at nights unsupervised?

  6. hey! can i attend the program if i am 14 at this point?