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High-schoolers gain a flair for diplomacy

After intensive public-affairs course, students see politics in a new light

Not many high-schoolers in the United States can claim to have spent part of their summer vacation grappling with how to solve a litany of problems in Latin America. But every year, in a small town in Arkansas, several dozen soon-to-be seniors do just that. The countries in the spotlight may change, but for three weeks, these students immerse themselves in the world of civics, politics, and international relations.

The Fulbright School of Public Affairs, held at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, brings students into contact with guest speakers and throws them into mock debates on everything from the role of the media to government policies and current public issues.

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Typically, several hundred students apply. The 35 who are accepted find they get fired up about issues at home and abroad that they once simply ignored.

"Students leave here with a greater appreciation of how our country works," says Hoyt Purvis, director of the program. "It's not easy, but you can see during the three weeks the way these students actually begin to think differently about law, media, and politics.... It's a great time to be having the school, because politics is so much in the forefront of the nation's consciousness now."

Named after the longtime US senator from Arkansas, the program began 15 years ago at the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences (within the University of Arkansas). It also receives some funding from the state Department of Education.

Other colleges, such as Southwestern Missouri State University in Springfield, are considering starting similar programs modeled after Fayetteville's.

"We get to hear a lot of speakers," says Sarah Holland of Russellville, Ark. "Sometimes it becomes overwhelming, but we learn something from every one of them."

Prior to attending Fulbright, many of the students possess little interest in politics or current events. After total immersion, students say they will study headlines when they return home.

Darren Gibbs of Fayetteville says he grew somewhat weary of the mantra, "Vote, vote, vote." But, he adds, "I have learned that we should be aware of what is going on in the country."

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"We have learned so much about current events and especially about international events that we may never get to hear about in our local newspapers," adds Ashley Caron of Mena, Ark.

Milk, clothes, and politics

After a long day of debating politics, students gather on the lawn of the historic Old Main building for sandwiches and cookies, and await their next speaker: Glen Hooks, executive director of the Democratic Party of Arkansas. With a twinkling, Robert Redford smile, Mr. Hooks tells the students why it is important to be involved in politics. As did the speakers who preceded him, Hooks talks with a partisan edge, but his message is clear - act now to get involved. "From the milk you drink to the clothes you wear, everything is connected to politics," he says.

Every day, the students work together to formulate questions for the speakers. Following Hooks's 45-minute talk, they pepper him with myriad questions - everything from who will become president in November to what he thinks about capital punishment.

"I've learned from experience that Fulbright guests better be on their toes," Hooks says. "Over the years, I've been asked about everything from same-sex marriages to genetically altered foods. These students are sharp, well read, and know their stuff."

With so many speakers rotating through the program, students say that after the span of a few days, they already see differences between the parties. "We have learned that Republicans seem to be less real than Democrats," says one Fulbright attendee who asks not to be identified. "I don't want to make anyone angry, but it is so obvious when they walk in which one is which. Republicans are so much more uptight. Republicans don't answer your questions. Democrats tend to spin it to what they think you want to hear," the teenager adds.

Some of the students who attend say they have their own agenda. Sarah of Russellville, a town 80 miles west of Little Rock, says she came in order to "network" with politicians. Her goal: make connections, get into politics. "You can't tell me that's not how politics works," Sarah says. "Of course it does. I meet a politician, make a good impression, he could help me down the line."

For student Nicholas Norfolk, research about Colombia in preparation for the international debate overshadows all the discussions of polls and ponderings about vice-presidential picks. On a Friday morning, he launches into arguments as part of a bipartisan crowd at its simulation of an international negotiation, mock-United Nations style.

"Colombia is poor," he says, arguing that it needs a multilateral solution to its drug-trafficking problem.

His Fulbright cohorts are also armed with knowledge about the countries and constituencies involved in the day's debate - Panama, Mexico, the United States, US activists, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Next chapter: peace talks with the rebels

With the speed of a cartoon fight, the Fulbright students fire off facts about fleeing refugees, rebels kidnapping citizens, border police playing unfair games. They whip out political resolutions and heady proposals. They debate. They resolve. They debate again. When the simulation ends, every country appears happy. The students decide that Colombia will open peace talks with the rebels.

Nicholas says he learned that it's "a lot more beneficial if we work together rather than fighting all the time."

He adds: "I'm so used to being in the United States that I forget how many problems other countries have and how come it's so hard for them to solve them.... [The program] really allowed me ... not to take anything I already have for granted."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society