Aaron Brazelton encouraged our students (and all faculty present) to allow themselves to be uncomfortable, to invite the feeling. He reminded us that, if we want something bad enough, initiative should be our staunchest ally--our first and last tool. Aaron was invited to Altamont to speak on leadership, with an obvious focus on his exploits. But his time with us was far richer than just a bio followed by a "you, too, can do great things" pep rally. Empathy was the great unifying principle of his talk. Whether he was channeling the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird fame or speaking about real-world cultural immersion, Aaron began and ended his time with us with a simple proposition: if we are truly going to affect change and be citizens of the world, we must step out of ours and into the circumstances of others. It is this premise that led him from being a delegate with World Learning to creating his own cultural exchange program--The Serbia Fellowship Experience.
As he related his story, we could easily extrapolate his second big theme, that our lives are the consequences of a series of choices. As a high schooler, Aaron chose to visit a foreign country, in the process becoming the first person in his family to leave ours. So moved by the experience, he chose to pursue cross-cultural opportunities further, allowing them to inform his education goals and shape his free time.
Single-handedly, Aaron has forged a small but significant alliance between the United States and Serbia. Now, to be clear, he'll deny the effects of his own actions and affirm the help that others have given him-and he should. But this is his baby. He chose this project. He sent the emails. He made the phone calls, and called back—repeatedly. Moved by his experiences, and understanding the profound value of empathy domestically and internationally, he created an immersive opportunity for others.
Several ideas come to mind when I think of Aaron’s successes. 1) He embodies the best of leadership. His are totally selfless endeavors that empower others. 2) Aaron is actively trying to re-educate himself, to expunge the misconceptions and to embrace reality. 3) This is a joyful endeavor, notably devoid of fear and judgement, and full of the excitement of discover, of expansion.
As a result of The Serbia Fellowship Experience, Aaron now has the eye of and recognition from the U.S. state Department. Without any political agenda, Aaron has cultivated a relationship based on mutual respect and legitimate inquiry. Along with a select group of individuals, Aaron leads excursions of cultural exchange. Humbly, he and his group immerse themselves into a foreign culture. Leaving their own norms and expectations at home, their journey is one of discovery. He has hosted Rhodes Scholars, a Truman Scholar, and a Fulbright Scholar. Three of his “Experience” participants are first generation students. For twenty, this is a first trip abroad. He is literally transforming lives. As an unofficial ambassador, Aaron embodies the best of the United States and welcomes the wisdom of his hosts.
Aaron is a twenty-two year-old suburban Huntsville native and recent graduate of the University of Alabama whose only agenda is cultural exchange- celebrating and bridging differences. He doesn't know the meaning of "no." He doesn’t know that he’s too young to be a transformative force. He never learned that bouncing back from failure should seem insurmountable. He chose grit and resilience. His youthful audacity, which we should all share, propels him, and those on his journey, forward.
We should pay closer attention to our young leaders and affirm their idealism. Perhaps it's the folly of youth, but Aaron sheds the fear and divisiveness that is driven down our collective throats, he sheds them and joyfully, disarmingly, embraces our distant neighbors. Twenty-two year-olds like Aaron are humanity's hope- in Palestine and Istanbul, in Tel Aviv and Khartoum, “From ‘Bama to Belgrade;” they're all fighting essentially the same fight. He hasn't endured the threats and violence that so many suffer daily. But he shares their DNA. He races to the front line. We should do all we can to support-and join him-on his journey.
Two final observations:
Global Initiative Director
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