The students from Gardiner, Montana’s high school didn’t have much experience in the world beyond “little towns among farmland,” as one of them put it. So, when the mayor of the state capital, Helena, spoke to them as a 1994 refugee from Liberia’s civil war, the link between distant conflict zones and pastoral Montana took on a captivating human form.

“We have to be able to get out of our comfortable bubble,” Mayor Wilmot Collins advised the Gardiner students, who had gathered in Missoula, Montana, last month with almost 200 other young people for the Montana World Affairs Council’s Academic WorldQuest competition. “Help someone else get out of that bubble and take that risk,” Wilmot told his inquisitive, spellbound audience.

It was a challenge that the students from Gardiner, a town of 875 residents on the northern edge of Yellowstone Park, had already accepted.

Student asks a question during ECI virtual session

To prepare for the competition over the school year, they had pored over resources associated with 10 topics ranging from cybersecurity to “ASEAN at 50” to a “Peacebuilding Toolkit.” In the end, the school sent 12 of its 80 students to the competition in Missoula.

After 10 rounds of 10 questions each, Gardiner’s Team 2 bested more than 40 others from across Montana, making Christina Webster, Andrea Angermeier, Emilie Hansen and Abigail Dean the state victors.

"Winning the Montana AWQ competition is one of my proudest achievements,” Webster, told a member of USIP’s staff. “This program is an amazing opportunity to not only learn about world affairs, but also learn about how to personally achieve your goals."

The three teams from Gardiner are among the thousands of young people across the country who participate in this quiz-bowl style event each year at their local World Affairs Council affiliate. The objective of the program is to prepare young people to meet the economic and security challenges of the globally connected 21st Century through exposure to issues outside of American borders, according to program training materials. The U.S. Institute of Peace helps sponsor the national competition as part of its mission to encourage U.S. students to think about peace and conflict, and to build a nationwide network of people, schools and communities interested in working for peace.

Bringing the World to Montana

Speaking to the Missoulian newspaper, Montana World Affairs Council’s executive director, Janet Rose, said that the “insulation” of Montana can result in being “underexposed to international issues.”

Opportunities for introduction to such issues are an important component of students’ education, said Christina Cote, a teacher at Gardiner High School and coordinator of its Academic WorldQuest program.

“Attending a school with little diversity, it is important for me to teach my students about different cultures and religions,” Cote said. WorldQuest opens them to experiences they would otherwise not have, she said.

Abby Dean, one of the winning team’s members, added that “foreign affairs is a realm that is so different from what we can experience in Gardiner.”

“After participating in a competition that requires you to study international diplomacy, we can understand that the world is so much more than little towns among farmland,” Dean said.

In late April, Cote and the winning team will attend the national Academic WorldQuest competition in Washington, joining 45 other teams from across the country for a two-day program that includes a reception at USIP’s headquarters on the National Mall.

Making Connections

At the Montana program, USIP facilitated a workshop in which small groups of students identified what they thought were the most pressing local and global issues. Terrorism, education, human rights and natural resources were among the international leaders. Closer to home, drug abuse was listed by most of the groups, with issues including gentrification, forest fires, education and sexual harassment appearing on multiple lists. They discussed how local issues connect to global ones, and what they as young people can do to make a difference.

In most communities there are organizations working on these issues that students and community members can join to start their peacebuilding journey. In Missoula, USIP met with a representative of the Jeanette Rankin Peace Center and INBC’s Center for Community Change, who are local resources for people looking to take action for peace. There are also teachers like Cote and USIP Peace Teacher Ezra Shearer at Sentinel High School in Missoula who pursue opportunities to bring complicated global issues into the classroom. In addition to being one of this year’s USIP Peace Teachers, Shearer coordinates his school’s participation in Academic WorldQuest.

In Missoula, it was Collins’ story that seemed to form the most vivid bridge for the students between Montana and the world. They peppered him with questions as he shared his journey from escape on a freighter as a starving refugee to becoming a U.S. Navy reservist and a child protection specialist with the Montana Department of Health and Human Service—and now Montana’s first black mayor. “Whatever you learn today, spread it,” Collins told the students. “Don’t keep it, tell others who couldn’t make it.”

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