It's not every day that the State Department gets to go back to school.
Last week, we partnered with Chicago Public Schools to link Lincoln Park High School students with secondary school students in Ghana, Zimbabwe, Algeria, and Peru via video conferencing technology. Students engaged in a range of human rights-related topics in anticipation of the 12th World Summit of Nobel Laureates, taking place in Chicago from April 23-25, 2012. Juniors and seniors from Lincoln Park High School connected with English-speaking youth brought together by our U.S. Embassies in Accra, Harare, Algiers, and Lima.
These incredible students from three continents discussed a wide range of issues candidly and respectfully. They touched on serious political issues, including women's rights, education, the Arab Spring, human rights, and access to medicine. Students also connected with one another on personal levels, finding similarities in their commute time to and from school, sports and extracurricular activities, and even fast food preference. This clip from our discussion between Chicago and Harare gives a feel for the conversations among these impressive students -- even comparing the weather in the Windy City to that of subtropical Harare.
We were thrilled to have participation from local Chicago media to engage the local community. Anchors from CBS Chicago, ABC Chicago and FOX Chicago participated as celebrity moderators for our virtual discussions. Check out this piece by Bill Kurtis, co-anchor of CBS 2 News in Chicago, who reported on the discussion between kids in Chicago and Accra, Ghana.
One thing all the kids could agree on: they want to stay connected. The 90-minute discussions were really just the tip of the iceberg, serving to introduce the kids to one another and make them hungry to learn more about one another's cultures, beliefs, politics and history. Students will continue the virtual conversation via Facebook, email and perhaps even future video conferences.
Juanita Douglas Thurman, a teacher at Chicago's Lincoln Park High School, lent us her classroom, her time and her students for three days to make these virtual exchanges happen. Juanita summed up the experience by saying: "The webchats with young people in Chicago, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Algeria, and Peru were real in every sense of the word real. These were real young people discussing real issues, with real thoughts, real openness, in real time for real dialogue. It became surreal."
Ms. Thurman went on, "I am always impressed when truth meets knowledge and it evolves into a better truth and increased knowledge. However, I have never been able to see a global rendition of the creation of a new truth by my students. This was a three day explosion of teen power for which I am eternally grateful to have witnessed. The students in all five video sites proved to everyone that they were all indeed ready for the world. Next time, I am moving closer to the front for a better seat!"
We also had the opportunity to work with Jennifer Johnson, a history teacher at Lincoln Park High School. Jennifer shared this regarding the virtual exchanges: "I am so grateful that technology allows us to engage our students with other young people from around the world in such meaningful conversations. It is connections like this which will develop the hearts and minds of the next generation to become increasingly active and vocal citizens. We are living through a revolutionary moment in world history as more people realize the power they possess to influence governments and to change power structures. I am thrilled to witness my students realize their own role."
One of my fondest memories of these exchanges was the fact that we had so many "repeat offenders" among Chicago students. Kids showed up for one exchange, loved it, and came back for more. Amanda, a student at Lincoln Park High School, was my star "repeat offender." Amanda participated in all three days of the virtual exchanges. Amanda captured her experience with this: "What I enjoyed most was to see how students from different cultures all want to come together as one to make sure that youth have a voice on issues like human rights and world peace."
Technology helped us break down geographic barriers to bring the voice of youth to Chicago for the World Summit of Nobel Laureates. State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs also organized the visit of 16 young people from Bangladesh, Liberia, Timor-Leste, and Yemen to participate in person in the World Summit of Nobel Laureates. These youth will connect with their counterparts at Chicago Public Schools and with U.S. youth involved in Peace Jam over the next two weeks.
One thing is clear: youth leaders from around the world are definitely present and accounted for in Chicago.
Stay tuned on Twitter using the hashtag #Nobel to follow the experiences of youth exchange participants in Chicago.