Friday July 26, 2013

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series on youth leadership workshops hosted by the SIT Graduate Institute

"We've got amazing students," said Peter Plass, logistics director at the Youth Leadership and Peacebuilding Programs at the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro. "They know enough to talk back, to be smarmy teens, but they always surprise me the most."

The Youth Leadership and Peacebuilding Programs, which have been hosted at World Learning for over two decades, bring students from all over the world and all over the United States for workshops, dialogue, and fun. This summer, there have been eight programs, including three programs that ran concurrently last week. A group of 99 participants from Mexico arrived on Thursday, July 11; a group of 14 from the United Kingdom arrived on Friday, July 12; and a group of 42, comprised of 32 from Iraq and 10 from the U.S., arrived on Saturday, July 13. All of the students left the SIT campus on Saturday, July 20.

These students' action-packed weeks included attending the High 5 Adventure ropes course for team building exercises, classes at World Learning, and canoeing on the Connecticut River.

When asked about her favorite part of the week, Sara, a participant from Oregon, said it was the group dialogue that she had on Wednesday, July 17. Among other things, her dialogue group discussed September 11 and the subsequent War on Terror, including the U.S. entry into Iraq. She said this discussion changed the way she thought about the U.S. presence in Iraq. Sara also berated "how the media portrays both of us" as a barrier to proper understanding.

Khawlia, a Kurd from northern Iraq, said she thought "the invasion really saved the Kurdish people," but she acknowledged that this was not the view held by everyone in her country. Khawlia was thankful that the invasion lifted the shadow of Saddam Hussein from the Kurdish people, but was happy that the U.S. finally left the country, because "now that they left Iraq, there can be progress. Both countries have had enough wars."

The group of 42 participants from Iraq and the U.S. are part of an initiative called the Iraqi Youth Leadership Exchange Program or IYLEP, which was started in 2007, and is fully funded by the U.S. Department of State, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. IYLEP's goal is to foster U.S.-Iraqi understanding and to support budding young Iraqi leaders in initiating change in their communities. After the students return to Iraq, they will be implementing community-development projects. Past projects include blood drives and environmental initiatives.

After their time in Vermont, the IYLEP participants will spend two weeks in four different host cities around the country. Each host city (Bozeman, Mont.; Chicago; Louisville, Ky.; and Portland, Oreg.) has a core theme. Students going to a city with a specific theme focused on that theme through Global Issue Groups or GIGs during their time at World Learning. The GIG topics were: Leadership and Entrepreneurship, Global Social Problems and Social Change, Peacebuilding through Arts and Sports, and Global Public Health.

The last GIG, Global Public Health, was unique in that two to three students going to each of the four host cities were allowed to opt-in to this GIG specifically.

In addition to IYLEP students, participants from the UK were evenly mixed into the GIGs based on choice. The UK participants, part of the UK Dialogue Programme, will be joining the IYLEPers in their visits in host cities.

The curriculum in the Global Public Health group was focused on helping the teens place their experience and the experiences of their communities in the context of public health. Cortney Seltman, leader of this group, said that, although the students all specifically chose the Public Health track, they were not all interested in becoming doctors or medical professionals.

Nick, a student from the UK, explained that he wanted to be a leader in the music industry, and he would use the skills he learned at World Learning to help him in that goal. However, besides his career ambitions, he was committed to helping his local community in London, as well as the larger global community, particularly in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. Nick considered that the teens in his community were being "betrayed by the adults," who underestimated and stigmatized them. In his opinion, this led to many of the public health and safety problems in his neighborhood and needed to be addressed.

Seltman, in response to her students' variety of interests, wanted to show them "how people can influence health from all sectors." She started this process by painting a big picture of public health problems in the world, then by examining public health problems that influenced the students personally and zooming back out to a larger scale.

Seltman has been doing this program for three years and notes, with interest, how the participants gravitate towards specific issues. "Last year it was stress and depression." This year the kids are particularly interested in health systems. The UK students have been very vocal in their praise of the National Health Service in their country and other students have had their interests piqued.

After their morning workshop on Tuesday, July 16, the Public Health group had a workshop with John Ungerleider, founder and director of the Youth Peacebuilding and Leadership Programs at SIT. Ungerleider led the teens in a discussion on different styles of conflict resolution and hard versus soft bargaining styles. They had a hearty discussion over whether magpies, dragons, or tigers best represented hard bargaining styles.

Hassan, a student from Iraq, explained that he didn't understand why someone would change their way of bargaining. "If you had a code, you can't change it. You have a principle," he said. This comment led into a discussion on how people formed their principles and what made people act a certain way in response to conflict. The topics discussed spanned from the role of religion to peer pressure in schools.

Lillian Podlog will be a junior at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., this fall. She is interning at the New England Center for Circus Arts.

In Saturday's Reformer, Podlog speaks with students involved in the Jóvenes en Acción group.