Twenty-year-old Nawaz Latif is an engineering student at BITS Pilani, Dubai campus. I meet him at the AIESEC national conference that has brought together more than 60 delegates. He tells me the three-day meet, titled Written in the Stars, is the third conference that AIESEC in the UAE has put together for 2010-2011, after the Gulf Conference and the National Leadership Development Seminar.
The energy at the conference is high voltage. The AIESEC members, all students from universities at the Dubai International Academic City (DIAC), Zayed University Dubai, Zayed University Abu Dhabi, American University of Sharjah and Dubai Men's College, are being introduced to the chair of the conference Ahmad Arshi, a prominent script analyst at Universal Studios and HBO. An Emirati by birth, Arshi is a noted author and film-maker, and an alumni of AIESEC Canada.
The sound of music distracts my attention and I see one of the students break into a dance routine on stage. What was that about? I ask Latif. "We believe in having fun when working. We've a system of roll calls; whenever a certain team is introduced in a conference, they come on the stage to sing and dance. The system was started by members of AIESEC Africa. It is our way of keeping everyone energetic all the time," says Latif, president of Dubai International Academic City chapter, AIESEC UAE.
Global partner IE Business School from Madrid speaks about how the choices that students make shape their lives. Each year the university offers eight AIESECers from around the world scholarships covering 40 per cent of their tuition fees.
Alumni Saber Sassi, who now works for Oracle, shares his experience on how his AIESEC mindset helps him adapt to different work environments and business cultures.
A long-time partner of the programme, Pricewaterhouse- Coopers outlines its unique recruitment process and the opportunities for graduates, while an AIESEC intern speaks on sales and marketing strategies from his experience of working at Reckitt Benckiser.
The conference also has members getting into groups to analyse trends in the UAE's business and educational sectors, among others, and come up with focus areas for the upcoming year. To demonstrate cultural diversity within AIESEC, there are presentations from Bahrain, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, the UK, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Philippines and the UAE. Finally, the members are introduced to the new national office bearers via live streaming and videos.
As the event winds down, I take the outgoing president of AIESEC in the UAE, Hamad Taher, to a quiet corner for a tête-à-tête.
AIESEC is the world's largest youth organisation that is solely run by students, he tells me. It provides opportunities for leadership development through empowering its members with skills and experience that matter in today's meritocratic world. The AIESEC network has over 60,000 members in 110 countries and territories. It is present in more than 1,600 universities across the globe, provides more than 10,000 leadership experiences to its members and sends students and graduates on 10,000 international exchanges annually.
The organisation runs on a three-tier system - AIESEC Worldwide, AIESEC national chapters and the AIESEC local chapters - which represents each campus under AIESEC's pool.
A Bahraini national, 24-year-old Taher says, "I joined AIESEC in November 2007 as a volunteer in the local chapter in Bahrain. All my friends had joined the organisation a year earlier but it took a year of their nagging to make me apply for membership. I am truly grateful that they put in that effort, because when I joined, I was completely blown away by AIESEC and its offerings. It has helped me embrace my true calling - human capital development. I studied finance at university and would be working in a bank had AIESEC not given me the opportunity to run the HR department as vice-president after I graduated."
During his term as vice-president of the Bahrain national chapter, Taher succeeded in sending 20 students and receiving 30 students on internships in one year. He also sourced a sponsorship of 150,000 Bahraini dinars (Dh1.5 million) from the Bahraini Government for students to participate in AIESEC's internship programme. The amount will support 15 Bahraini students over a three-year period.
"As a student, I would traditionally be stuck with my textbooks. AIESEC allowed me to meet with government officials and negotiate with them for the programme - opportunities that rarely come a student's way."
When the vacancy of president for the UAE national chapter came up, Taher applied for the post and was voted in by the members of AIESEC UAE. He moved to Dubai for one year and was given a team of four members to help him fulfil the mandate of overseeing all the local chapters in the UAE.
"Interestingly, all four of them come from a different member country. So we've a Kazakhstani, Russian, Czech Republican, and a Ukrainian in the team, which highlights the reach of AIESEC and its ethnic diversity. AIESEC offers young people the opportunity to be global citizens, to change the world," says Taher. "It is the right place for young people looking to develop themselves. It gives us an opportunity to attend conferences, work abroad and acquire tangible experiences to complement our university studies.
"AIESEC has changed my life. It has given me a new view of the world and has helped me better understand myself, my skills and professional passions; it has given a fresh direction to my career."
Attracting and retaining membership
The UAE became the 85th member country of AIESEC in 2001. Two years later, the organisation realised its first exchange objective. Today, AIESEC in the UAE has its headquarters in DIAC (DIAC chapter), as well as chapters at the American University of Sharjah and the Zayed University in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Recently, the UAE University in Al Ain and the Abu Dhabi University also set up an AIESEC chapter within their respective campuses.
Taher says, "AIESEC is young in the UAE but is gaining ground. We are learning and adapting to the environment. We have also received an overwhelming response from universities which welcome us and express their willingness to participate in initiatives that can contribute to the development of their students. The Dubai Government has been a strong supporter and backed us through its entities. For instance, since 2005, we have had the continued patronage of DIAC and DKV in taking AIESEC forward in the UAE. Dr Ayoub Kazim, who heads the clusters, guides us in every way possible."
In addition to offering AIESEC an office and the use of its facilities free of charge, senior academic heads from the universities at the DIAC campus periodically mentor and provide guidelines to the executive management team of the AIESEC national chapter.
Over the years, AIESEC UAE has created long-running relationships with leading multinationals in the country. Acer has sponsored the initiative for the longest period beginning in 2004, while PricewaterhouseCoopers and Microsoft also offer strong support. Some of the other partners include Sundance Events, Alcatel Lucent, Reckitt Benckiser, Workz Middle East, the Khalifa Fund and the Emirates Foundation.
"We would like to see greater involvement from the private sector. They are not aware of AIESEC, our activities and impact worldwide."
Latif, who has joined in the conversation, chips in, "It's not just the corporate world that we ask for support, we also welcome individuals who can take on mentorship roles. They can counsel students on a one-on-one basis or deliver lectures at workshops and events organised by AIESEC."
Given an extra edge
Latif has been a member of the local chapter for the past two years, since he came to the UAE from India as a student of BITS Pilani. He is looking forward to graduating this year so he can focus more on a full-time position at the AIESEC national level.
As vice-president of Business Development last year, Latif was responsible for corporate and non-corporate relations. In his current role as president of the DIAC chapter, he oversees all activities of the chapter and heads a new team of vice-presidents who handle the core departments. Their overall activities are supervised by the national team.
For Latif, being an ‘AIESECer' gives him a platform to see the world beyond textbooks, take risks and be a part a community that a normal student is rarely exposed to.
"Joining AIESEC has given me an extra edge and experience I am proud of. At just 20, I'm leading a team of 45 members from different parts of the world. The Gulf Conference, which happened in November 2010, was the turning point for me. Over the four days, I spent time with people I would rarely meet. I realised that although we come from different cultures we have a lot in common."
Latif explains how one can become a member, "Membership is open only to those under 30. We have two recruitment sessions a year - in September and February. The applicants have to undergo group discussion sessions as well as personal interviews in order to prove that they have what it takes to be a part of this organisation. Membership is not restricted to students as such, although they are preferred.
"Members can volunteer to be a part of the local chapters. With enough AIESEC experience and commitment, they can then apply for full-time paid positions anywhere in the world on the national chapter level. These positions are advertised on our website. Alternatively, members who do not wish to be a part of the local or national chapters and decide to go for their masters programme or take up jobs can choose to remain associated with AIESEC as alumni."
AIESEC's internship and international exchange programmes are not limited to members alone. Aspiring candidates below the age of 30 can fill in an application form (available on the website aiesec.co.uk) and submit it along with the application fees to the local chapter. AIESEC then matches the student's requirements with the vacancies available on their worldwide database that has over 10,000 internships.
Candidates can apply to any country of their choice and area of work among other preferences.
The internships are broadly categorised as "Professional" and "Developmental" internships. "Professional" interns receive a stipend while "Developmental" ones may have to bear their expenses. As part of this programme, students voluntarily work on corporate projects or with NGOs overseas. AIESEC spreads its members around to learn about each others' languages and gain cultural experiences. Then there is the Educational internship, which helps students achieve language skills. All these internships vary from six weeks to a year and students can apply for them at any time of the year.
In the UAE, AIESEC is making rapid strides and has set a target of 15 outbound exchanges for this year. Over the past year, more than ten students from ten countries have come into the UAE on the internship programme. Currently, they are trying to raise funds for 15 Emirati students from the Dubai Men's College to go abroad on the exchange programme.
Apart from offering internship opportunities and facilitating exchange programmes, the organisation pioneers projects to promote corporate sustainability and engage the youth to contribute to today's world. Initiatives such as the Abu Dhabi Youth Congress held in May and the Youth Leadership Forum 2011, which was part of the Careers UAE Fair in March and dedicated to Emirati youth, are a few examples.
Taher, who is close to completing his one-year term as president of AIESEC in the UAE, is set to hand over the baton to Yana Makaveeva from Bulgaria. As for Latif, he is determined to take up Taher's position some day. "I can already see myself as president of AIESEC UAE, and I know I will get there."
"We are very pleased to partner with AIESEC as we feel their vision for student development is a perfect fit with ours. AIESEC will add great value to the services we provide DKV students."
Wessen Rawazik, manager, Department of Student Services and Programmes (DSSP), Dubai Knowledge Village
"PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) recognises that the youth are the future leaders of the world and part of our responsibility as a global firm is to help them to develop through supporting such a great organisation… The Gulf Talent Conference was a real success and subjects covered touched on a very important topic in the current conditions."
Ahmad Al Badawi, senior partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Qatar
"In the last few months I had the opportunity to work with a couple of AIESEC interns. I was extremely pleased to see how dynamic, how open and how innovative they are. I guess AIESEC is a great organisation providing us with right new blood that we need, with a lot of energy."
Zaki Khoury, regional citizenship lead, Microsoft Gulf
Making a difference
Who: Hamad Taher, president, AIESEC UAE and Nawaz Latif, president, DIAC Chapter, AIESEC UAE
Where: Dubai International Academic City (DIAC)
What: AIESEC (Association Internationale des Étudiants en Sciences Économiques et Commerciales)
How: Mobilising resources and organising exchange programmes for AIESECers
For info on AIESEC in the UAE, email email@example.com. The address is: Dubai Academic City, Block 6 United Arab Emirates Tel: +971 4-3900335 Fax: +971 4-3669641
Vasanti Sundaram is a Dubai-based freelancer for Friday magazine