For 11 days last July at a boarding school in Jordan, 16 Iraqi and 16 American teenagers came together to talk about achieving a peaceful, sustainable future. Their Youth Initiative for Progress in Iraq Conference was the brainchild of two UWC students, both now Davis UWC Scholars at Princeton University.
While they were at Li Po Chun UWC in Hong Kong, American students Astrid Stuth and Michael Schoenleber co-led student discussions on topics of interest in international relations. They saw how, in these discussions, young people of diverse backgrounds could fairly quickly find common ground.
“Afterward, the two of us were going for a walk,” Michael said. “We came up with the idea that we should do something similar with American and Iraqi students.”
The following year, when Astrid had entered Princeton (Michael was still at UWC), they decided to go for it.
Now they had to find a venue, recruit participants ... and raise $50,000.
They found King’s Academy, a school outside Amman. They sent information and applications to about 250 top-quality high schools across the U.S., and contacted NGOs operating in Iraq. They approached the country’s deputy prime minister, whose daughter attends Princeton; he introduced their project to schools around Iraq.
The organizers attracted a challenge grant of $25,000 from an anonymous donor, to kick-start their fund-raising. At a Davis UWC Scholars dinner on campus, a Princeton executive heard Shelby Davis and Astrid Stuth discuss the project. The executive secured contributions from three Princeton offices, including the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
The budget was met. Next came the conference.
“The night that everybody got there, I gave them all a tour of the King’s Academy campus,” said Michael, who became a Princeton freshman in the fall. “As soon as we were done, an American raised his hand and said, ‘Do you have a frisbee?’
“From the moment they came together, they were taking the initiative to interact with one another. It was truly incredible to see.”
In the formal discussions, the Americans tended to focus on achievements of the U.S. intervention, while the Iraqis spoke of outrages like the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But in the end, all the participants — including Iraqis from a wide range of backgrounds — agreed on a 12-page statement of common ground.
“When we looked to the future, the Americans took a backseat and just listened,” Michael said.
“The thing I realized,” Astrid added, “is that it’s really important to invest in youth empowerment — giving them the tools, the voice, the encouragement to go out and do something that they find meaningful.”
Even though the conference brought together only a small group of people, she concluded, “It’s in these groups that you have the opportunity to have really productive discussions and build lasting bonds of friendship. And those relationships are really important to bringing about change.”