From Virginia Beach to the Middle East

August 11, 2017

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CRC and local high school work together to ensure bright future for foreign policymakers

In May 2011, the topic of conversation among my First Colonial High School students was international stability and the global nuclear system. I asked them to work together and develop a series of questions and I prepared a discussion for the next week.

Their questions dealt primarily with foreign policy in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. To provide my students with some background, I enlisted an old friend who just happened to be in town working directly for the U.S. Secretary of Defense. He was duly impressed with my students’ line of questioning and thought he had the perfect person to engage these students in a bit of debate—U.S. Ambassador Clifford Hart. At the time, he was the U.S. Special Envoy for the Six-Party Talks, responsible for dealing with North Korea. He seemed quite amused at the idea of high school students talking to him about such complicated matters, but invited us anyway. I packed my Ford Flex with seven students and off we went to the state department. The conversation was electric and the students were engaged. The insight provided by Ambassador Hart only fueled the fire—the students wanted more.

I had wrongly assumed that these students were immune to the complexities of the international political environment. After all, our students have lived their entire lives in a country deeply involved in global security issues and humanitarian efforts. My 21st century learners wanted to dig deeper and really understand their relationship and responsibilities to the global community. Their first visit to the State Department gave them a unique experience and the educational perspective was historical, political and—most importantly—tangible.

With assistance from some other friends, that trip turned into First Colonial High School’s Foreign Policy Work Group, whose mission is to familiarize interested students in the process and content of U.S. foreign policy, to help them acquire both conceptual and practical understanding of the challenges that American policymakers face, and the implications of their decisions. This assemblage has also become a way to give my students a more “aesthetic” understanding of international relations and diplomacy.

If the students could better experience the build-up to the war in Iraq by talking to Donald Rumsfeld, Michael Hayden, or Paul Wolfowitz, then that became the focus.

If the students could challenge and question the subject matter and the decision makers, then they were given educational insight far exceeding anything fellow students, parents, or their teachers could offer.

The visit with Ambassador Hart was only the beginning. Other trips followed to Washington to engage in conversation with Elliott Abrams, Dennis Ross, and Richard Perle, to name a few; along with policy briefings from experts from the Council on Foreign Relations, The Brookings Institute, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

So far, 161 students have participated in five seminars and 34 closed door briefings with foreign policy experts and decision makers.

My students are fortunate; they have been exposed to professionals in an environment where they are encouraged to think, speak, write, understand, and manage complex global problems.

Students involved with the Foreign Policy Work Group have become engrossed by these experiences and interactions and have been able to transfer their new insight and critical understanding to other areas of their academic life.

The experience with the Foreign Policy Work Group has also given much to me. I’ve learned that the students are interested, engaged, and willing to do what it takes to get the information they think is relevant. In addition, because of their opportunities, these students are not just active listeners, but also active participants in the entire process. When discussing the Middle East peace process with Ambassador Dennis Ross in his D.C. office, he encouraged them to “stay energized and deeply curious,” and described them as “the kind of students that will carry this experience with them for their lifetime.”

Constantly looking for ways to engage, interact, and experience the world of geopolitics and international relations, one of the students attended a program offered by the Community Relations Council of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater. When he returned with an invitation to connect with CRC’s director, Robin Mancoll, I immediately did.

Over the past few years, Robin Mancoll and I have emailed about opportunities to connect the students with visiting experts, both locally and in D.C. Former Israel Today experts Dennis Ross, Avi Melamed, and Mark Dubowitz have all interacted with our students as part of this new partnership between the Foreign Policy Work Group and the CRC. We know many more opportunities are to come.

Contact Wendy Weissman, assistant director of the Community Relations Council of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, at wweissman@ujft.org.

John Sutton is the advisor for Foreign Policy Work Group, Legal Studies Academy, First Colonial High School.

- John Sutton

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