With heavy emotions and fond memories, Collegiate’s senior ambassadors parted ways with international students on Oct. 9 after the week-long International Emerging Leaders Conference (IELC). Tears were flowing as participants said their final goodbyes outside of the Embassy Suites hotel in Washington, D.C. In addition to global friendships, the conference provided participants with international perspectives through one-of-a-kind opportunities.
As a component of IELC, over 40 international students representing 10 different countries toured Washington D.C., accompanied by Collegiate’s team of 18 senior ambassadors. Throughout the weekend, students visited the Capitol Building, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument on a student-orchestrated walking tour. This facet of the conference not only provided international guests with the opportunity to experience America’s capital city, but it also presented Collegiate students with an international perspective on our nation.
Although some international students came to the conference with preconceived notions of Washington, by the end of the weekend their attitudes toward the city were overwhelmingly positive. “I’ve totally changed my opinion about this city during conference [sic],” remarked Dina, a 17-year-old participant from the Murager Regional Specialized Boarding School for Gifted Children in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. “It’s a perfect city for a walk with friends, full of sights, green parks and shops.” Sam, a Malaysian student from the St. George’s Girls School in Penang, echoed Dina’s positive sentiment, describing D.C. as “a beautiful and historical city” and “a capital America can definitely be proud of.”
One of the sites visited by the group was the Capitol Building. On Saturday, following a 15-minute wait in the rain, a security checkpoint, and a video orientation, students were given a tour of the inside of the building. The docent, a soft-spoken elderly woman, explained the historical significance of every aspect of the Capitol. Despite the occasionally exhausting level of detail, international students still appreciated the tour. “It’s an iconic building, so just being there was amazing, but getting a tour of it was particularly interesting,” said Jordan, a 16-year-old student from Lebone II College of the Royal Bafokeng in Phokeng, South African. Younes, a 17-year-old Moroccan participant from the George Washington Academy in Casablanca, most enjoyed the historical aspects of the tour, as did 16-year-old Haya from the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon. Haya was intrigued to learn “how the history of the USA was depicted throughout the Capitol Building.”
To some of the international visitors, including Jerry, a 17-year-old student from Beijing New Oriental Foreign Language School in Yangzhou, China, this portrayal of American history seemed “very patriotic.” Jerry specifically referenced the orientation video, which used panoramic views of national parks coupled with inspiring music and the soothing voice of a narrator to give an historical overview of the United States. American and international students noted that the video portrayed many aspects of American history in an especially positive light. Even beyond the Capitol, visiting students remarked at the perceived patriotism of the city. Jerry commented on the prevalence of American flags, and Malaysian student Jo agreed that the city seemed to take utmost pride its nation.
After a “traditional” American dinner at the Hard Rock Café and a restful night’s sleep, students stopped by the White House on Sunday morning. The group spent half an hour observing the building, and while many students were intrigued by the opportunity, others were unimpressed. “I was expecting something more big [sic],” remarked Andrea (Italy). Hisham (Morocco) humorously added, “the King’s palace is bigger.”
As students observed the White House from outside of the gates, a group of Puerto Ricans staged an organized protest on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, calling for the release of imprisoned Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera. Collegiate senior ambassador Julia Mitchell didn’t see the point of the protest, claiming that “nothing’s ever going to come from it. Yelling at Obama – no one’s gonna’ hear you.” Ellie Casalino, also a Collegiate senior, noted that she’d “seen enough” protests in D.C. and was not affected by the protest.
Some of the representatives from other countries offered different insights. What could have been seen as a nuisance was actually intriguing for many of the international students. “I love how they could just protest outside of the White House,” exclaimed Jo, a student from the Malaysian school. Her fellow Malaysian Jian described the protest as a representation of “the freedom of America’s people,” an interesting international perspective on a right that many Americans take for granted.
For the American students, the international perspectives made the weekend memorable. “[H]aving the international students there made D.C. a thousand times more interesting,” explained senior ambassador Claire Andress (’17). “We went to monuments that I had been to a few times before… but having the delegates there with me made it an entirely new experience.” Sonja Kapadia (’17), also a senior ambassador, elaborated that she “started to look at museums, monuments, and landmarks from a non-American perspective.” Kapadia cited this as one of the “overarching themes” of IELC — “bursting your ‘bubble.’” Students, both American and international, did indeed “burst their bubble,” experiencing novel perspectives in our nation’s capital and leaving with a better understanding of American history and culture.