In April, more than 400 U.S. high school students, representing 85 schools in 26 states, joined a Zoom call for what normally would be an in-person Academic WorldQuest — a quiz competition sponsored in part by USIP that’s dedicated to foreign policy, international issues, global conflict management and peacebuilding. Following the cancellation of the national competition in April 2020, there was uncertainty about what WorldQuest would look like going into 2021. While some deferred participation, others saw it as an exercise in seeing what was possible: In-person competitions were hoped for, but local groups experimented with virtual platforms; teachers figured out how to recruit teams and organize remote study sessions; and students made room for extra learning in shifting schedules. 

USIP Board member Judy Ansley speaks with Academic WorldQuest students at the 2018 National Competition reception, hosted at the Institute’s headquarters in Washington, DC.
USIP Board member Judy Ansley speaks with Academic WorldQuest students at the 2018 National Competition reception, hosted at the Institute’s headquarters in Washington, DC.

Looking back at this unprecedented academic year, USIP set out to learn more about not just how the competitions happened, but why. Through conversations in the past few weeks, teachers, students and representatives of local councils have shared why they prioritized global learning even when so much was happening in their own communities.

Accessing the World

The WACA network includes more than 90 community-based organizations spread across the United States. Members like the World Affairs Council (WAC) of New Hampshire and WAC New Jersey see Academic WorldQuest as a chance to expose younger members of their community to international issues.

“It is not easy for high school students to access the foreign policy community. It is a pretty elite business. However, there are students that have that ‘bug,’” said Roz Engel, founder and president of WAC New Jersey. For Engel, helping students learn about the world is helping them learn about New Jersey, which she describes as “one of this country’s most international states,” serving as a hub for trade, immigration, finance and port traffic as well as home to a high percentage of foreign-born residents.

“Our young people know this about New Jersey, and they really want to understand the world because they see it all around them,” she added. “They sit in their high schools and they know the world is out there, but they have a hard time accessing it.”

WAC New Hampshire had to cancel its competition in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic started, but quickly shifted all their programming online. For Executive Director Tim Horgan, not having WorldQuest this year was not much of a question: “Global knowledge is widely important. The pandemic validates that view. But beyond the pandemic, everything that happens around the world — whether we are ready for it or not, whether we want to believe it or not — it impacts what goes on here in New Hampshire.”

Recognizing that geography was not a limiting factor this year, they elected to collaborate with counterparts in Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Vermont for a large, regional event — which also opened a path for more direct participation and support from USIP. Academic WorldQuest, Horgan believes, helps students achieve a better understanding of the world and build the skills necessary to research, learn and understand: “Without knowledge you cannot understand what’s going on, and without understanding you are only going to see the negative impacts rather than the positives.”

Bill Clifford, president and CEO of WACA, saw this year as a demonstration of the network’s commitment to some of their youngest members. “The World Affair Councils of America wants to challenge the next generation of leaders to develop the leadership skills and global understanding needed so that our communities can better compete, collaborate and make informed decisions,” he reflected. “We applaud the councils and teachers that worked so hard this year.”

Beyond the Curriculum

While the local councils serve as the hub for Academic WorldQuest, it is local teachers that bring student teams together, help them prepare and, this year, adjust to a changing format.

For many of the teachers who participate in WorldQuest, it is something extra that happens “beyond the curriculum, beyond the school day,” according to Brenda Fishman, a teacher at Shawnee Mission East High School in Kansas.

Fishman has been involved in the local WorldQuest competition hosted by the International Relations Council in Kansas City for the last 12 years. She worked hard this year to keep momentum going when classes were virtual and she could not have those casual, hallway encounters. She values the role the competition has in challenging her students, including in pushing them to work together in a team.

Jolynn Wright, a teacher at Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah, similarly cites the process her students go through as one of the strengths of Academic WorldQuest: “The benefit I get from our participation is watching my students learn and get excited, listening to the discussions they have and to their thought process,” she shared. “I expect my students to go outside themselves, outside their ‘bubble’ to come up with solutions.”

Both Fishman and Wright passed all credit onto their students, citing their excitement and passion for learning about international issues, which can be “contagious.”

“Just Start”

Even before the pandemic, Parwan Machingal was interested in pursuing global health as a field of study. Machingal, a senior at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School in Nashville, Tennessee, originally became involved with WorldQuest at the urging of one of his teachers, who encouraged Machingal to take advantage of the international affairs offerings at nearby universities and the Tennessee World Affairs Council.

Throughout his four years of Academic WorldQuest, he was able to dig deeply into categories that fully aligned with his interest, and those that, at first, seemed to be more tangential. He credits participating in WorldQuest with helping him “understand how different concepts are connected in ways that are difficult to explain; how the different political decisions we make affect a larger amount of people.” Applying this lens to personal interests, he has explored how political decisions, refugee crises, population densities and other topics factor into global health policy.

On the other side of the country, Kayla Lim Tam, a senior at Kalani High School in Hawaii, was a newcomer to Academic WorldQuest this year. For Tam, virtual learning enabled her to explore her interests outside of the normal school curriculum. She became actively involved with the Pacific and Asian Affairs Council, drawn into conversations on social justice and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. “The more I got to learn about it, the more interested I was in it,” she shared.

For Ann-Louise Colgan, director of public education at USIP, Machingal and Tam’s stories indicate that the decision to pursue a virtual competition has been well worth the effort, saying “Our involvement in Academic WorldQuest each year is validated by the eagerness and dedication of students like Parwan and Kayla … They strive to understand the complex, interconnected world we share and to see the opportunities for peace and progress, and we, in turn, are committed to providing them with educational resources to support their learning and engagement.”

Tam took on the competition this year as a team of one — and her advice for diving into hundreds of pages of resources, or even exploring international issues for the first time: “Just start.”

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