Six years ago, a group of Dominion High School students returned home after a trip from India with an idea to change the world.
“The world turned out to be much larger than they realized,” Rock Ridge High School student Anjali Kunapaneni said, recounting the story. “They took this experience and did something that has brought many different cultures and perspectives together.”
They launched the first ever Loudoun International Youth Leadership Summit in 2011. This week, Dominion is teaming up with seven Loudoun high schools to host the 10-day event for a fifth year.
The summit formally kicked off with an opening ceremony Monday that welcomed students from 20 different countries. All week, the students will discuss some of the world’s most pressing issues and come up with ways to make real changes in their own communities.
The students began the summit with a call to action from Cambodian genocide survivor and human-rights activist Loung Ung, who gave the keynote speech at the opening ceremonies. She encouraged the students to keep doing what they’re doing: to consider different perspectives than their own, and to speak up for those who can’t.
“Peace requires all of our actions. Because if we want it, we must strategize for it, work for it and create it,” she said.
Ung was 5 years old when communist soldiers removed her family from their home and took them to a labor camp, where her 14-year-old sister later starved to death and her father was executed. By the time she was 8 years old, she was sent to a child soldiers training camp.
Ung says she believes she was on the verge of becoming “a sufficient child soldier killer” if she hadn’t been rescued. Instead, she noted ironically, she grew up to be an activist for peace. She and her siblings were sent to a refugee camp in Thailand and, by the time she was 10 years old, to Vermont.
“If you take away children’s safety, their love, their homes and you hurt them enough, they will break. I know I would have,” she said. “I am here because of so many leaders like you who stood up when I couldn’t. So I thank you.”
Several of the international students said they came to the summit because they wanted to do their part to tackle big problems.
Louis Backstrom, a student from Brisbane Grammar School in Australia, said he’s eager to sit down with other teenagers to talk about how to improve the disparity between men and women across the globe. “We’re quite well off in terms of gender equality in Australia, but in my opinion we have room to improve,” the 16-year-old said. “We should be setting an example for developing countries.”
His classmate 15-year-old Stuart Moss said he’s eager to understand how other countries address an influx of refugees. “I’m interested in hearing everyone’s approach because we’re seeing some of that in Australia,” he said. “I’m also looking forward to making friends from around the world.”
While there’s plenty of common ground for the students to begin their discussions, the international students said they have already noticed many cultural differences in their first few days in Loudoun, everything from “cars on the wrong side of the road” to unfamiliar foods.
Students from Durban Girls’ College in South Africa said they’ve never seen national pride like they’ve seen in their three days in the U.S. American flags are flown almost everywhere, even at private homes and at churches, 17-year-old Maria Corte Portela said. “You don’t see that in South Africa.”
“We saw people cleaning near the roads as part of the Adopt a Highway program. That’s so different,” 15-year-old Shwetha Singh added. “The willingness to give back to their country is really refreshing.”
Ung said she had her own bit of cultural shock when she first came to the U.S., including eating foods like meat loaf and instant rice.
She said her favorite snacks as a child living in Cambodia were fried grasshoppers and fried tarantulas. “They’re kind of like tater tots,” she said of the latter. “Friends, you have a fear of spiders—eat them. Fear gone.”
The international students will be in Loudoun through April 12, staying with host families, seeing the sights in DC and, as Rock Ridge High School Principal John Duellman put it, making a game plan “to literally change the world.”