Alex Lawrence (‘99) never stops looking for ways to make a difference in his world and ours.
As executive director of the UCLA Anderson's Riordan Programs, including the Riordan Scholars, a program targeting college bound high school students interested in learning about business and developing leadership skills and the Riordan Fellows, a program that targets recent college graduates who are considering graduate education in business management, Lawrence's mission is to better the lives of young Southern Californians, future leaders currently in need of guidance and mentoring.
Recently, Lawrence expanded his socially-conscious horizons as a participant in the Alliance of Civilizations International Fellowship (AoCIF) program. According to its website, the program's goal is to intensify youth exchanges between the United States, Europe and Muslim countries. The objective of the program is "to facilitate, mutual, substantive and meaningful exposure for emerging leaders from North America, Europe, Middle Eastern and North African countries to media, culture, politics, business and governmental institutions, civil society, and religion in one another's countries."
Beyond the official sounding rhetoric, the program's mission is a simple one: Recruit exceptional young leaders from the North America and Europe and then take them to the Middle East and Africa, immerse them in the culture and introduce them to like-minded and similarly qualified locals, then encourage serious dialogue aimed at fostering better understanding of each other's country and culture, goals and ambitions. The program also reverses the process, bringing Middle Easterners and Africans to Europe, the U.S. and Canada with likeminded goals. One of the program's partners is the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which has long supported the Marshall Memorial Fellowship Program. This program, an offshoot of the post-World War Two Marshall Plan, arranges for the same type of cultural exchange between North Americans and Europeans.
UCLA Anderson's connection to these programs precedes Lawrence. Both Nike Irvin ('89) and Kim Freeman ('02) traveled to Europe as Marshall Memorial Fellows and they in turn recommended that Lawrence get involved. At one point, he too was a candidate to participate in a European exchange, but that trip never materialized. Instead, he applied for and was accepted into the inaugural AoCIF class.
Lawrence's trip took place this March. His journey took him to Egypt, Morocco, Qatar and included such diverse experiences as camel riding, a visit to Al Jazeera television, trips to the Qatar Museum of Islamic Art and Al Akhawayn University in Morocco - along with standard tourist fare such as a visit to the Egyptian pyramids. But for Lawrence, the key question is not where he went, it's what he learned on the journey.
"The consistent message we received when we asked residents what they would like us to tell people in North America, they'd always say 'Tell them we think with our hearts and not with our heads.' And that was a consistent message from university professors, from politicians and from local residents," Lawrence said. "At first that didn't' make a lot of sense to me, but towards the end of the trip, after seeing and experiencing their lifestyle and attitudes and their approach to living ... the lifestyle wasn't one of hustle, hustle, hustle.
"Their lifestyle, it's a four-day work week. Their workday is typically seven in the morning until two in the early afternoon," Lawrence recalled. "It's also a very religious region, the daily activities would include prayer five times a day. It wasn't this sort of ‘Let's do lunch, we'll talk later.' It's all about ‘tell me, how are you doing? Tell me a little bit about yourself? and it wasn't just because we were from the U.S. or Europe and we got red carpet treatment. It was a deeper investment in one's spiritual self or soul. It wasn't superficial activities. It wasn't where you work or where you're from. It was a lot more invested than that."
One element of the trip that separated the experience from a more typical vacation was the daily "debates." According to Lawrence, every day's agenda featured a line for "debate" which was really more of a deep discussion about important issues or as he put is "what's really going on."
"We went to meet with the CEO of Al Jazeera, one of the major media outlets in the region and it's a hot button (topic)," Lawrence explained. "(But) when we talked and met with the officials from the Qatar, they looked at Al Jazeera not as a problem, but as something that stirs up the debate. Those we met with really wanted to learn more about us, not cause any problems."
Before traveling, Lawrence and his the other fellows were prepped by alumni of the European program to act as if they were representatives of North America, not necessarily the United States and he says he never felt any pressure to defend the United States or its policies. Everything, he says, whether it was the lack of educational opportunities for women in Middle Eastern countries or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was always a topic for discussion, with neither side feeling the need to defend their points of view. The goal, he says, was to learn more about each other. One thing that surprised Lawrence was the attitude towards U.S. President Barack Obama. Prior to the journey, he anticipated a sense of excitement about this country's still-new president. "But when we were on the ground there, there was just a little bit of excitement. The more prevailing sense was that they felt nothing (in terms of U.S.-Middle East relations) had changed. There really wasn't the excitement that I expected," Lawrence said.
As an alumni of the program, Lawrence will continue his involvement, which includes seeking new candidates for the European and African/Middle Eastern Fellowships and there is also the possibility he'll be asked to host Fellows journeying to the U.S. (There is actually a contingent of Fellows in North America at present, but as Lawrence's Los Angeles outpost is farthest west, it appears the group won't be visiting L.A.).
Lawrence says he made his trip with the full-support of Anderson and Dean Judy Olian, with whom he met before making the journey. Now, he wants to use this adventure to inform his work as he continues to mentor young people from around Southern California through the Riordan Programs and while the Riordan Scholars and Fellows are concerned with getting into university and later finding good jobs and graduate programs, he hopes they too remember to sometimes think with their hearts, not just their heads.
"The population we draw from is a family-centered, humbled upbringing. They're already coming from a family household about "us" not just "me". So when they go into college, it's about taking care of themselves," Lawrence said. "Forty-percent of the students we work with will never travel outside the US. , so I'm trying to impart an opportunity to hear about the world that's not just from the U.S. media, especially in a new generation that's all about social networking. They're more open to meeting different cultures and reaching out.
Through the Riordan Programs, Lawrence will try to get a pen pal program in place, in which Riordan participants may communicate with students and young graduates from the Middle East, where first-generation college graduates often have trouble finding work in the corporate world. At very least, Lawrence hopes his trip inspires Riordan Scholars and Fellows to venture out into the world if they have the opportunity. "For those with the fortune of traveling abroad, now it's not necessarily going to the "scary" Middle East," he said. "I told people I was in Qatar, Egypt, Cairo, I never had any thought about being in danger."
To read more about Alex's trip, his blog is found at http://blogs.anderson.ucla.edu/riordan_programs.