When Ilias, 16, from Morocco, and Ella, 16, from the United States, applied for a virtual exchange program focused on global sustainability issues, their initial interests were quite different. Ilias, having lived in multiple regions of Morocco with both water abundance and water scarcity, was particularly interested in the thematic focus on water. Ella, on the other hand, was eager to push her personal boundaries by participating in a virtual exchange for the first time. Through WorldDenver’s World Affairs Challenge Virtual Exchange (WACVE), they both found themselves surprised by how technology made them feel connected with their peers on the other side of the world, while also teaching them how much there was to learn about themselves and each other.
WACVE brings together high school-aged youth from Colorado, U.S., Morocco, and Iraq to research and discuss a global issue, this year rooted in access to clean water, and to collaboratively design a solution to that issue. Ilias and Ella, who were on one of WACVE’s bi-national teams, worked with their team to plan and present a project to address clean water issues in their local communities. Their team’s project aimed to promote awareness of water waste and encourage a global exchange via Instagram around proven methods to conserve water.
Ilias was initially skeptical that the U.S. and Morocco had much in common based on the impressions he had of the United States. “I thought that the U.S. community didn’t care about climate change… I thought we were different, and that these kinds of issues only affect low income countries such as Morocco,” Ilias shared. “After being part of the program, I discovered that we are all humans, and we all suffer from these issues. American society is a community that cares about solving these problems and taking care of the environment. I discovered that we as Moroccans share a lot of similarities with the U.S. community.” Through conversations with her Moroccan teammates, Ella also grew personally in her own thinking about global community: “[The WACVE program] helped me reflect on the ways in which my thinking was narrow-minded or limited, and I feel that now I’ve begun to think more consciously about topics I am still unfamiliar with.”
We as humans must find solutions and contribute to make a change in our communities, and our similarities and differences make us unique and [stronger] as a [global] team.
Their team’s American and Moroccan facilitators challenged Ilias, Ella, and their teammates to think creatively, not only about their shared research project, but also about how to communicate with an open mind and curiosity. “The most significant thing that I learned through this virtual exchange is how underestimated authentic communication is in our current day and age,” said Ella. Ilias similarly cited the benefits of building connections with his teammates: “I learned that what makes the U.S. society special is the diversity of ethnicities, religions, and languages, and I learned a lot about [that diversity] from my teammates and facilitators.” Both participants completed the virtual exchange program with a deep appreciation for cross-cultural exchange and the dedication of their teammates. “One of my favorite parts of this process was bonding with my Moroccan teammates about our shared experiences with things like school and our teenage responsibilities,” Ella said. She and Ilias were particularly proud of the bond their team formed.
Ilias and Ella were both driven to expand their knowledge through virtual exchange, and as they pursue higher education and professional careers, they plan to use what they learned and experienced in WACVE and to continue to think globally and act locally. Ella plans to pursue a STEM-focused career and to seek out ways to contribute to and participate in her community as an expression of her gratitude for the resources, opportunities, and support that her community has provided for her. Ilias is also motivated to build on his WACVE experience by focusing on how he can create positive change close to home, while connecting those local actions to the larger global impact that such actions can generate. He plans to become a doctor or a scientist and to contribute to communities where investment is needed most: “We as humans must find solutions and contribute to make a change in our communities, and our similarities and differences make us unique and [stronger] as a [global] team.”
WACVE is implemented by WorldDenver and is supported by the J. Christopher Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative (JCSVEI). JCSVEI is a U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs program administered by the Aspen Institute.