On Tuesday, March 21, the Lincoln Academy Residential Community of 12 faculty and nearly 90 students gathered in the Poe Theater for a panel discussion entitled “Student Perspectives: A Forum on Current Politics.” This event was designed to engage international students from different parts of the world in a discussion of current events, and how the rest of the world is reacting to political change within the U.S..
The concept of the panel was introduced to students by Lincoln Academy’s Director of Residential Life Ken Stevenson who opened by saying, “when we as adults think about your education at Lincoln, we think that one of the most important skills is for you to learn how to participate in thoughtful conversations about complex issues. This is a skill that doesn’t just happen by accident, you have to practice, and that is one reason we are here tonight.”
The five student panel members were senior Jack (Nattavut) Li of Thailand, senior Hindley Wang of China, senior Savaa Ivakin of Russia, senior Toru Fiberisima of the UK, and junior Omar Kadirov of Uzbekistan.
The discussion was opened by LA Social Studies teacher Kelley Duffy, who asked each panel member a question about his or her own country and that country’s current relationship with the US.
Savva Ivakin began with a question about US-Russia relations. He explained that the relationship between the two countries was damaged by the situation in Crimea and Ukraine, but “I am hoping Trump will help change this, and that relations will be be good again, like they used to be… Trump is a good businessman, and he may understand the situation and be able to help.”
Toru Fiberisima took a question about how the Brexit vote in the UK relates to the election of Donald Trump. “I live in London, and I am used to living in a diverse city…. So I didn’t really notice that people in the countryside were so upset, and the Brexit vote was a surprise, very much like Trump’s election was to a lot of people here. I can see now how people in rural areas, like Wales, were feeling angry, and that is similar to this country.”
Duffy asked Omar Kadirov about his feelings about Trump’s executive order on immigration. “Trump finds us [Muslims] threatening to his country, and this feels like discrimination to us. Even though I am not from one of the six countries, I am still a Muslim.” When asked how that policy is affecting him personally, Kadirov replied, “not at all yet; people here at Lincoln are pretty chill. Maybe next year when I arrive back here through JFK I may have problems–I will let you know.”
The next question went to Jack Li, and related to the recent power transition in Thailand after the death of the long-serving and well-loved king. “In my country the king was like a god-figure, so who would take power after him?” He said that people doubted the ability of the prince to fill his father’s shoes. “Many of the people in the country opposed it [the prince taking power], but we have no other choice. … But now the prince is doing pretty well, better than we thought. I think Americans should think about this when dealing with Trump: just deal with it. We don’t know the future. This person may seem like a bad person, but on the inside he may be different, and may do good things.”
Hindley Wang, a senior from China, answered a question from Duffy about trade relations between the US and China. She compared President Trump’s isolationist leanings with “the seclusion policy of China’s last empire, which doomed the nation. That policy of isolationism had its time, but it was doomed. China now has an open trade policy, and the US is closing down, taking the opposite strategy.” Hindley continued, emphasizing that the difficult relationship between China and South Korea is a continuing source of tension in China’s relationship with the US.
After these opening questions, the audience was invited to join the conversatio. Nearly all questions came from other students, who brought up topics ranging from individual freedom to the role of the US in world relations.
One line of questioning focused on political apathy, and whether the panelists found that young people in their countries are less informed and passionate about world affairs than they used to be.
Jack, Savva, and Omar all agreed that in their countries, Thailand, Russia, and Uzbekistan, many citizens are apathetic about voting because they don’t feel that their vote matters. “When I was young I wanted to vote, but after so many coup d’etats in Thailand, now I think it won’t make any change, and it kind of crushed my dreams a little,” said Jack.
In China, according to Hindley, the government-controlled media is the only source of information, and young people lack incentive to get politically involved. “In China we don’t like disagreement, and we compromise, so we don’t form sharp ideas. You learn to sharpen your opinions when there is disagreement, and in China there is not very much disagreement. The education system and propaganda adds to this, and people just don’t have this political interest….People don’t have the urge to act, or the means to act, and then we don’t make changes.”
The only panelist who did not report political apathy was Toru, who remarked on the relatively high voter turnout in the UK. “I was surprised how low voter turnout was here in the US,” she observed.
The forum lasted an hour, and could have gone on longer, judging from the number of questions and level of engagement in the room.
“The purpose of the panel was to provide a safe opportunity for civil discourse on complicated topics. I feel like we met that goal,” said Kelley Duffy after the forum. “What I enjoyed most about the event was that it was really an evening of student voices. Adults spoke little and the students really drove the content of the discussion. They had questions for each other and listened very carefully to the responses.”
“My other favorite part was that I heard things from all of the students that I had not heard before, even though I work with them every day. It was a great reminder that we learn so much when we ask instead of assume, and take the time to listen to each other.”
Another Student Forum will be planned for later this spring, and it will again be open to the public.