Students don foreign-policy hats for a day

April Amargo decided it was time for a little counterpoint in a heated debate last week. Rising from her front seat in the cavernous Rhode Island House chamber, the young "senator" implored colleagues to question how far the United States should go in pressing other countries to adopt its democratic ideals.

Politicians in Providence, R.I., are typically more apt to argue issues closer to home. But then, they aren't seniors in high school.

"What happens to countries who don't want to join the United Nations?," April pointedly asked a student who favored forcing US mores on others. "Look at the Elian Gonzalez case - people don't like to be told what to do."

The gray-suited student from Middletown (R.I.) High School was participating in the Capitol Forum on America's Future, an annual event in which students don legislative hats and consider the future direction of US foreign policy.

This isn't your normal cafeteria chatter, where heated discussions tend to center not on state or national politics, but on who's going out with whom or what dumb thing the principal just did.

It's that lack of political zeal that many observers worry leads to low participation rates when young people reach voting age. Fewer than 20 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds bothered to vote in the 1998 midterm election, according to the Washington-based National Association of Secretaries of State. And a poll it released last year shows that despite a rise in volunteerism, a majority of American youths believe even a passing awareness of current events is unimportant.

The Capitol Forum is out to change that - and to teach young people they do have a stake in America's future. The forum began two years ago in Connecticut, where founder Miles Rapoport was then secretary of state. Set up in conjunction with Choices for the 21st Century, an educational program designed at Brown University in Providence, the forum has since spread to Nebraska, Illinois, and Rhode Island. Next year, four more states are expected to join the roster.

Susan Graseck, director of Choices, said the initiative grew out of an awareness of how little time is devoted to helping high-schoolers become informed about issues they can vote on. "The initial purpose of public education in this country was to prepare young people to assume their role as active and attentive citizens," Ms. Graseck said. "If our democracy is to survive, we need to get back to those roots."

The program engages students in deliberation on current issues through a series of high school classroom units. Selected students then go on to their state capitols to argue these issues with their peers, and then voice their concerns and opinions to elected officials and civic activists.

In Providence, about 70 students participated, along with a dozen state and US legislators and representatives of area interest groups.

To many of the students, it's an opportunity to show that teens are engaged in the world around them.

"People stereotype teenagers as not caring, but from today, I think the adults realized we are actually thinking about world issues," April said. In fact, she decided at the end of the day that she wants to become Rhode Island's first female Asian senator.

Of course, not all the students were so affected by the forum. "I was kind of nervous, and just glad when I found out I didn't have to present stuff," said senior Tim McLaughlin from Warwick (R.I.) Veterans High School. But he added that learning about immigration while preparing for the forum has made him more open-minded. "I used to get mad about how many immigrants there are in the US. But now I know more about the problems in their own countries, and why they become refugees."

Other students changed their views on US foreign policy during the forum debates. Patricia Lorenzen, from Middletown High School, told her colleagues she had switched from an isolationist stance to one that engages the US more with other countries.

"The environment is a really big issue, and it doesn't take change from one country, but from many," she stated, her voice quavering with fervor.

But outcomes are not always predictable. One senior, Jennifer Huff from St. Mary Academy, admitted to the gathered crowd that before the forum, she would never have voted for isolationism. "But now, I think we should simply be a role model for other countries," she said. "I just wish other people could live in their own countries and enjoy the same nationalism that we do."

This sentiment didn't sit well with state Rep. Bruce Long. He asked students to think about how isolationism led to Hitler's rise in the 1930s. "Don't forget your [immigrant] roots," he begged. "I don't think any of you are really isolationists."

After the debates, senior Ginger Allister from Moses Brown High School in Providence said she appreciated Mr. Long's comment because it made her realize how America was built on immigration, and how the US should keep its doors open. And, she noted, "It was great to have real legislators listen and respond to our comments. After today, I want to pay more attention to what's happening in the US."

That's what Harold Demers, a history teacher at North Smithfield (R.I.) School, likes to hear. "Programs like this one, where students get to sit in the chairs of state representatives and debate public policy, really get the ball rolling for students to become more active later on."

*E-mail comments to steindorfs@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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