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Helping L.A. Teens Think Globally

Undergraduates help make IR lessons relevant

Helping L.A. Teens Think Globally

Twins Matias and Alejandro Sueldo were high school students living in Buenos Aires when deadly riots broke out in the streets.

The then-15-year-olds watched as demonstrators turned the Argentine capital into chaos.

“They were starting fires and would cover their faces with T-shirts and break into stores using rocks and sticks,” USC College student Alejandro recounted of the rioters protesting the economic crisis in December 2001. “Police tried to intervene and they shot off tear gas and water cannons.”

That catastrophic event, occurring on the heels of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Towers, affected them deeply. They decided to devote their lives to making the world a better place.

Now 20-year-old College sophomores, they have shared their experiences living through politically turbulent times with local high school students. Both participated in the Teaching International Relations Program (TIRP) in which international relations majors are placed in classrooms to discuss current global issues.

Born and reared in Fresno, Calif., the Sueldos moved with their family to Argentina, their parents’ native country, in 1999. Both parents are doctors and their older sister is studying to become one. But the Argentine riots coupled with the World Trade Center attacks inspired them to take a different career path.

“We saw the horrible images of Sept. 11 on TV,” recalled Matias, who wants to work in international security. “We couldn’t believe what was happening in our [homeland]. Then the crisis in Argentina happened right in front of us in our other home. It opened our eyes to how connected the world is.”

Teresa Hudock, director of the College’s Center for Active Learning in International Studies (CALIS), which oversees TIRP, said dedicated students such as the Sueldo twins are the program’s crux. Students, who train others to teach at the local schools, run TIRP. Most volunteers receive class credit.

At a recent training session at USC, senior Chloe Brown stood before about 30 new TIRP volunteers.

“Usually when I’ve asked high school students what’s going on in another country they say, ‘We’re in Iraq.’ And that’s it,” Brown, 21, told the audience. “Our goal is to get them interested in global issues. The high school students will like you. You’re a little bit younger than their teacher and they can relate to you. They’ll think you’re cool.”

Such was the case at John Marshall High School near Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Students in Susie Alvarez-Tostado’s world history class recalled when the Sueldo brothers recently taught four weekly sessions.

“They were great,” said Frantic Gonzalez, 16, of Marshall High. “They were funny. But at the same time, they explained things in an interesting way. It’s like talking to your older brother.”

“They made us understand,” echoed Chelsea Conroy, 15. “They were younger and sometimes it feels like adults preach at us. They didn’t preach. They made it fun.”

Alvarez-Tostado said the so-called TIRPers act as role models for her students at the inner-city school.

“When the USC students are teaching, my students are looking at someone doing something positive in their life,” Alvarez-Tostado said. “Fast-forward four or five years and they could be looking at themselves.”

Alvarez-Tostado’s former student, John Chumacera, said the Sueldo brothers inspired him to enroll at Los Angeles City College. He said he wants someday to attend USC.

“They encouraged me,” Chumacera, 19, said of the Sueldos, who taught his class last year. “They seemed like they enjoyed teaching so much. I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I should pay attention.’ ”

“We always liked to convey to the students that we were like everybody else,” Matias said. “That they could go to college if they wanted.”