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Iowa City item of study for presidential cultural exchange program

BY BILL COONEY | MAY 14, 2015 5:00 AM

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Two young professionals from Southeast Asia will spend May in Iowa City as part of a cultural-exchange program started by President Obama.

Genevieve Yee from Brunei and Aria Widyanto from Indonesia are in Iowa City this month as a part of the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative.

The program began in 2013 to build individual ties between the United States and Southeast Asian countries.

Yee, who works as a social worker at a hospital in Brunei, said the experience each gains while in Iowa would be used as a resource when they return to their home countries.

“It’s very interesting the role city staff play here. Brunei is a sovereign nation, which means we have are ruled by a sultan,” Yee said. “Government is very bureaucratic there, even at the local level. Here, everything is in the hands of the public. They can bring up their issues directly to public officials.”

Widyanto, who is a business consultant in Jakarta, said he admires the collaboration among the different areas of local government after sitting in on governments meetings throughout his stay, such as planning for an arts festival.

“It was really impressive to see all these different parts of government working together with the private sector to get something like this done,” he said.

While in Iowa City, the two have been staying at the home of City Manager Tom Markus.

“These types of connections make a lot of sense,” Markus said. “Aria and Genevieve come from an area of the world that’s advancing very quickly. I think 60 percent of Indonesia’s population is under the age of 35, so making these connections now is important.”

During their stay, the two have seen the ins and outs of Iowa City.

“I would really like to see this program continue in the future.” Markus said. “The city would like to figure out ways to get international students at the University [of Iowa] to stay, live, and work in Iowa after they graduate. This program is a good way to learn how to do that.”

Iowa City is not what they expected when leaving for the program, Yee said. She spent her senior year of college at Bemidji State in Minnesota.

“I found out a few days before I left that I would be coming to Iowa; at first, I thought I was going to be in the middle of farm country,” Yee said. “But now that I’ve been here and experienced it, I see it’s really a young, fresh, vibrant city.”

When they leave Iowa on June 6, the pair will head to Washington, D.C., to have a conference with other members of the program. There, they will develop action plans to take what they have learned in the United States and apply it in their home countries.

“We didn’t know each other before this, so we’re learning things from each other as well,” Yee said. “Iowa City is a great place, but just like anywhere else, you have to come here to really understand it.”

“One of the highlights of my trip has been discovering Jell-O; it’s amazing,” Widyanto said. “The first time I tried it, I had to get my camera out and take pictures, because I had never seen something like that before.”


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