Russia, Iran, France, China, Norway, the United States, Egypt, Netherlands, Pakistan, South Africa, Argentina, Cuba, Canada — a sea of bobbing placards bearing the names of countries with diverse and often opposing worldviews, national interests and political agendas filled an auditorium in USC’s Mark Taper Hall of Humanities.
Scattered among them were more signs bearing the names of major non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders and International Crisis Group. The placards were held enthusiastically aloft by 200 local high school students who participated in the 2013 annual High School Leadership Conference (HSLC).
Steven Lamy, professor of international relations and vice dean for academic programs, led the event organized by the Center for Active Learning in International Studies (CALIS), housed in USC Dornsife’s School of International Relations.
“It’s all about teaching high school students to think about and analyze global issues and global problems,” Lamy said, during the April 6 event. “This initiative is not just about recruiting high school students to USC, it’s about recruiting them to think about universities, and about international relations as a field of study.”
Each year, CALIS chooses a different theme. Titled Globalization, Governance and Human Security: What will it take to assure “never again?” the 2013 conference was designed to introduce high school students to critical and creative thinking skills within the framework of a policy analysis forum as they pondered the vital question of how to prevent crisis situations escalating into future tragedies comparable to those in Darfur, Somalia or Rwanda.
“We want high school students to acquire analytical tools as they learn how to unpack a complex, controversial issue with many competing perspectives and priorities,” said Teresa Hudock, director of CALIS.
A month prior to the conference, the juniors and seniors — who were drawn from 16 high schools within a 25 mile radius of USC — were divided into groups and assigned different roles, with each group representing either a country or an NGO.
At the conference, Lamy and 45 international relations students serving as mentors coached the high school students on basic foreign policy theory, asking them key questions such as, what is known? What is unknown? What do we presume to be true?
The day kicked off as the USC Dornsife mentors helped students examine the position of their assigned country or NGO on human security and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P) — the United Nations international initiative adopted in 2005 to protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Although ethnic cleansing is not an officially accepted definition under atrocity crimes, it is also included in the R2P initiative.
In one case study, students considered the wider effects of a French military operation to oust Islamic militants in the north of Mali. Students were asked to consider ramifications of this human security crisis, such as an Al-Qaeda-led terrorist attack on a BP oil refinery in Algeria (intended as a reprisal for Algeria allowing France to use its airspace), and the hostile reception given to the tide of Malian refugees by the Nigerian and Algerian authorities.
To determine and understand the worldview of their country or NGO, with its own distinct priorities and interests, USC mentors encouraged students to consider its history of policy statements and actions in response to intervention. Participants were then asked to identify their group’s interests and near and long-term objectives with respect to the crisis.
For example, teams representing Norway and the Netherlands considered their countries’ long history of providing aid.
“They belong to the groups of states, usually the smaller European countries, that see themselves as problem solving states because, if they don’t solve the problems, the whole world falls apart,” Lamy said. “They don’t see the big powers as solving problems, they are perceived as creating problems. This kind of role playing gets the students to try to respond to these problems in a very sophisticated and thoughtful way.”
The role-playing exercise served as a forum for deliberation and negotiation, obliging students to articulate their views and reach a decision on their country or NGO’s response, with the overall goal of better understanding opposing views and searching for common ground.
Volunteer mentor Madison Hunter, a senior double major in international relations in USC Dornsife and in USC Annenberg School of Communication, found the experience personally and academically enriching.
“While I can attest to the growth that I witnessed my incredibly bright team achieve over the course of the day, I think I learned as much from the conference as they did,” Hunter said.
By the end of the conference, students from El Monte High School group, who were representing Norway, were using terminology like colonial legacy and balance of power “with ease and without any prompting,” she said.
“We want high school students to think of themselves as problem-solvers,” Lamy said. “What we are doing here is about critical thinking and understanding.”
Lamy paid tribute to the 21 high school educators who attended the event with their students. “The teachers here are amazing,” he said “Some use their own cars and money to bring these kids here. They’re all on Spring break and yet they are still coming to this.”
Billy Joe Wright, and Christine Sardo who teach at William Workman High School in the City of Industry, accompanied eight of their students to the conference.
Both teachers emphasized their students’ enthusiasm and excitement at being offered the opportunity to participate in the workshop.
“Last Tuesday, our students gave up a whole afternoon to go over the preparation materials with us,” Wright said. “And this Saturday morning they were all there on time to meet us at 6:45 a.m. so we could drive to USC.
“Whatever the kids commit to, we commit to,” he added.
Michelle Escobar, a junior at Workman, said attending the conference opened her mind to the possibility of studying international relations.
“I learned how to problem solve with a group of people on a certain crisis and I felt that I acquired new tools to better understand the world and my way of thinking.”
Jonathan Islas, also a junior from Workman, also said he had a great experience. “I felt I got a lot of important information that could help me in the future,” he said. “This changed my thoughts about going to a university like USC.”
Wright and Sardo, who attended a teacher preparation workshop in USC Dornsife in February, also appreciated the higher level communication skills being taught at the conference. “It’s great for us too, we can take those skills back to the classroom,” Wright said.
Sardo said many students at her school will be first generation college students. “So any chance they get to interact with college students and visit the college campus is wonderful.”
Getting a taste of what university and higher learning are all about while still at high school is another important goal of CALIS.
“Being able to spend the day at a university and have a wonderful experience with a college student who is taking an interest in you and showing their interest in the world is an eye-opening experience for many of these kids,” Hudock said. “For many of them a big part of the battle is just envisioning that this is even possible.”
USC Dornsife sophomore Michael Lim, a political science major minoring in international relations, who served as a volunteer mentor, was impressed with the effort.
“When professor Lamy concluded the conference by inviting the students to transcend what is presumed, I realized that was the most important thing we could have taught them,” he said. “The problems of the world exist because no one has found a way to fix them. To find real solutions, we will need to consider new ways of viewing the world. Most importantly, we will need to convince others that these ideas are important.”
Fresh from her mentoring experience at the conference, Hunter shared some of her experiences.
“At lunch my team asked me how I got into USC and what college life was like. One of them confided that she didn't think she was going to be admitted to a school like USC because she wasn’t smart enough.
“She seemed so certain, but I tried to convince her that just by being at the conference, she was taking a huge step in the right direction toward attending a great university like USC,” Hunter said. “For the remainder of the conference, her outlook was noticeably brighter and more engaged with the material. This program provided her with her first taste of university academia, and I truly believe it will resonate with her long into the future.”
The conference was funded by the Arsalyn Program of Ludwick Family Foundation, the University Gateway and the USG Philanthropy Funding Board. Christian Lindke, program director of Arsalyn, attended the conference with his twin daughters.
“USC’s High School Leadership Conference provided a wonderful opportunity for students from across the Southland to be taken seriously as they engaged with complex political ideas,” he said. “Efficacy is one of the foundations of good citizenship, and this event helped to provide all the participants with a sense that their voice mattered.”