Lake Oswego High School student Chloe Leeper says she attended a hands-on conference for high schoolers in June called the World Affairs Seminar — with a theme of "Education and Social Justice: Creating Change Around the World" — in honor of her late grandma, Sheelagh Hagan.
An Irish immigrant, Hagan grew up on a farm in Belfast and evacuated to a farm during World War II. "Advancement in education wasn't available for her after the age of 14," Leeper says. Hagan tried to take what time she could to teach herself over the years, but without a formal education, she struggled to follow conversations on current events and would often fall silent.
Hagan married Joseph Albert Walkington and lived a traditional life, taking care of their children and their home. She died at age 80 in January 2016, and Leeper still tears up when she talks about her.
When Leeper first learned all that her grandma had been through, she says she felt awed. And when she learned that there were many others in the world who also had no access to schooling, "I felt very sheltered and I felt very lucky to have an education" she says.
Now Leeper, who will be a senior at LOHS in the fall, says she wants to do whatever she can to make a difference in the lives of others. She dreams of becoming a nurse and joining the Red Cross to help people all over the world. And from June 24-30, she took part in the annual World Affairs Seminar (WAS), a learning opportunity for about 500 high school students from around the world (including England, Nepal, and Turks and Caicos) that focused specifically on education and social justice.
The interactive WAS program, which was held at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis., featured seminars led by experts, hands-on activities, field trips and recreational activities such as dances. The Lake Oswego Rotary Club offers scholarships to local students to attend the conference; in addition to Leeper, the club supported 2017 Lakeridge High grad Joel Saarinen and 2017 LOHS grad Kate Fayloga this year.
"The biggest thing this year's seminar helped me learn/realize is that every human-created problem can ultimately be solved with the right communication," Saarinen says.
Fayloga says events of this kind are essential to raise awareness about the struggle to obtain education for low-income families and many of the people living in developing countries.
"I just feel like it's important for people to be educated about social justice and what's going on," she says.
All three students are members of the Interact Club, a youth-oriented service group sponsored by the Lake Oswego Rotary Club. The Interact Club is made up of more than a dozen students from Lake Oswego and Lakeridge high schools; members gain leadership, team work and communication skills through spearheading and joining in community service projects.
In addition to the Interact Club and WAS scholarships, the LO Rotary Club also offers a Youth Exchange that gives students a chance to learn about other countries through the families they meet. (WAS is open to all high school students, of course, but Rotary offers support.)
"Lake Oswego Rotary offers our teenagers several opportunities to learn about community and international 'service above self,' along with new global perspectives and experience," says Ted Ricks, the LO Interact Club's adviser.
Ricks says Rotary highly values the experiences young people can have by learning about other cultures and people.
"We feel strong enough about this that we are investing in creating these programs with little or no expense to our students," he says.
Leeper says she was glad to have the opportunity, and she believes her grandmother "would have been proud."
Saarinen, whose great-great-great uncle was Eero Saarinen (a Finnish American architect and industrial designer known for the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport in New York and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis), says what he likes about WAS is how involved attendees have to be. Participants cannot slide by without being called upon to speak.
"In school, it's very easy for kids to get through a class without asking a lot of questions," Saarinen explains, adding that participation is more critical to students than learning by rote.
Saarinen is the only one of the three to have gone to a previous WAS event, and he says he cherished his first WAS experience last year.
"It was probably among the five best days of my life," Saarinen says. "There was no day when I couldn't sit in the lunchroom and find a big group of friends."
He says WAS is the type of opportunity that teaches leadership skills and demonstrates to a young person "how much potential you have."
"So you are incentivized to develop those skills," says Saarinen, who plans to study philosophy at Occidental College.
He also says he picked up some words in Nepalese the last time he attended WAS because Nepalese students frequently attend the event.
"I love learning about different cultures and languages," he says.
Fayloga, who plans to study environmental science at Oregon State University, says she also loved exposure to people from afar.
"Meeting people from different countries isn't something you get to do in your daily life," she says.
This year, Saarinen told The Review he was looking forward to meeting new people again and also to studying the ways in which education can improve. He says he's tired of hearing people say they want to "change the system," when they don't really know much about the education system itself or how they want it to improve.
A Rotarian, the late Dale Brock, sparked the idea for WAS as a way to bring about a better understanding of international issues. The philosophy behind the Wisconsin Rotary District 6270 Initiative is that if the causes of conflict are understood, problems often can be resolved peacefully.
Brock, who also served as the vice chancellor for business affairs for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, established WAS in the 1970s along with Gaylon Greenhill, retired chancellor of U of W-Whitewater, according to the WAS website.
Since then, WAS has impacted thousands of young people, including the nine local students sponsored by the Lake Oswego Rotary Club over the years.
One of the things that Saarinen says he won't soon forget is witnessing the powerful political debates among the highly educated attendees in their free time. At one point, after days of debate, a couple of the attendees brought up one final argument that made sense to the person they were conversing with, and that person respectfully dropped the issue.
"You can convince anyone to do the right thing or believe in you only if you refine your argument enough," Saarinen says. "I think many people try to convince others just by using emotions or unsound logic (and hoping the ones they are convincing will just drop it), so the key to communicating problems and solving them is to really know your stuff beforehand, and act more humble so that you expose all of the areas in which you might be wrong. That can be very uncomfortable for some people (as it is for me, but I am going to change that), but necessary."
For more information about the Lake Oswego Rotary Club, visit www.lakeoswegorotary.org or write P.O. Box 94, Lake Oswego, OR 97034.