Young people changing the world

This summer, I met two remarkable 2011 graduates of Elon College, Jesse and Natalie (pictured below).

At Elon, they were part of an honors program called Periclean Scholars. As undergraduates, they studied Sri Lanka for several years. As seniors, their group of Periclean Scholars flew over to put on (as in “run”) a conference in Sri Lanka.

Natalie and Jesse were so impressive that they were asked by the people they met at that conference to come back to Sri Lanka to work on another conference in September 2011. They’re still over there, traveling and learning.

You can follow their adventures on their blog, Stories From The Dusty Road.

The first post, worth watching, is a 90 second video that introduces you to Natalie and Jesse.

I was intrigued by their entry on October 6 — here’s an excerpt:

After hanging around Colombo’s main railway station for a little while, we were picked up by none other than Dr. Piya (whose last name is longer than my whole name strung together, making us non-Sri Lankans quite glad he typically goes by his first name). Jesse met Dr. Piya back in January when he was in Sri Lanka leading a study-abroad group from Texas A&M, and they kept in contact for a while after that. When we knew we were coming back this way, we thought it would be nice to meet up with Dr. Piya and spend some time with him. We’re now en route to Morawaka from Colombo and the three of us are filling up this spacious car with conversation.

Dr. Piya is many things. He is Sri Lankan. He is an environmental economist with an agriculture background. He is a graduate professor at Texas A&M (he may also be the only person I have seen in Sri Lanka who wears a baseball cap almost all the time – and a Texas one, at that). He is the father of two grown daughters who live and work in the U.S. He is a very strong supporter of international education and exchange (hence his incredible hospitality toward Jesse and me during our time with him in Sri Lanka). He is the owner of Sri Lanka’s largest organic tea estate. And, in his own words, he is one of the lucky ones who survived the ups and downs of Sri Lanka’s 36-year-long civil war and was able to make a good life for himself and his future family.

The post goes on to discuss the importance of tea, of non-violence, and of education. I’ll conclude with the final words from that post in a moment, because these folks are great writers… But first I want to show how Google Earth can bring this post to life.

Above, you read this sentence:

We’re now en route to Morawaka from Colombo and the three of us are filling up this spacious car with conversation.

Now I’ve never been to Sri Lanka. And unless you are unusually familiar with Sri Lankan geography, you don’t know where the capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo, is located. And I’m betting you have never even heard of “Morawaka.” I know that was the case for me.

But we live in the age of Google Earth, and without much difficulty, I was able to find out that Morawaka is about 60 miles from Colombo. It looks like this:

Now there’s also a cool feature on Google Earth that lets you turn on a photo layer, so that you can get a sense of what some of these places look like. Check out this 2-minute video I just made that brings Natalie and Jesse’s trip from Colombo to Morawaka to life even more. Just click on the image below to play the video…

By taking a little extra time to make thoughtful use of Google Earth, I’ve begun to empathize more with life in Sri Lanka. And wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all worked on being more empathetic? Imagine taking time just about every day to read about a new place in the world and then work to truly empathize by using a combination of Google Earth, YouTube travel videos, and targeted research.

For instance, if I were working with middle school students, we’d take 15-20 minutes (maybe longer, depending on student interest) to unpack that sentence that explained that Dr. Piya “is one of the lucky ones who survived the ups and downs of Sri Lanka’s 36-year-long civil war.”

Woah!  A 36-year civil war? What’s that all about? This is a sentence we should just skim — we need to take time to think about what it means for a country to fight a 36-year civil war.

This might be a good starting point for our research:

In the same way, we should not let a geographic reference to a place called “Morawaka” pass us by without investigating. “Morawaka” should serve as an invitation to visit Sri Lanka using Google Earth.

That sort of critical and curious reading of the news (or blogs or literature) is one of the things we will do most mornings at Triangle Learning Community, a middle school opening in August 2013 that will mentor young people to become empathetically engaged global citizens.

Eighth graders might not travel to Sri Lanka to host conferences, but they can change the world in powerful ways.

Here’s an example of a seventh grader from Seattle who has made a difference in Rwanda:

You can read more about Jessica’s work in this article from 2007.

You can also view the 11-minute TED Talk she delivered in 2010. Since the article was written back in 2007, she’s apparently raised $40,000 to send 22 poor girls to school in Rwanda:

Young people are capable! Let’s design learning environments that let them flourish and do great things.

Oh, and as promised, here’s the last line from Natalie and Jesse’s post about Sri Lanka:

The tea grown and produced at Nilmini Estate is packaged and sold under the name “Ahinsa Tea”; ahinsa means “non-violence” in Sanskrit. As we watched the sun set and talked about Sri Lanka’s civil war, the conversation got heavy. And when Dr. Piya transitioned from talking about the war to his estate, his voice was heavy with emotion. “I believe in fighting in a different way,” he said. And he went on to tell us about his dreams of opening up his estate in the future to students from around the world who come to research, study, and learn from each other. For him, education and non-violence – manifested in actions, words, and every cup of tea he produces – are the two most important things in Sri Lanka’s future.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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