In Yale ‘Hemispheres,’ high school students explore the world

On the day after a nationally televised debate between President Barack Obama and then-presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, some 50 New Haven high school students sat in a Yale classroom and shared their thoughts about the event, then turned their attention to news articles offering the perspectives of the Chinese government and Chinese citizens on the candidates.

After taking turns reading the articles aloud, the students fielded questions from Yale undergraduate students Amy Chang ’16 and Kristen Chapman ’13. Among them: “Which article is more biased?” “Why do Chinese citizens care who will be U.S. president?” “Which candidate do they think will have a more favorable stance toward their country?” The room was full of raised hands, and all of the high school students wishing to contribute to the discussion had a chance to answer.

The U.S. election and its pertinence to China is one of the many subjects the New Haven high school students have discussed this fall in their weekly classes as part of Hemispheres, a program of the undergraduate Yale International Relations Association (YIRA). They have also examined such topics as the civil war in Syria, famine in Somalia, and nuclear proliferation in North Korea, and have discussed more broadly the role of such international organizations as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Court of Justice, and the World Bank.

Founded in the early 1990s (then called the Yale International Education Program), Hemispheres has given New Haven high school students the opportunity to come to campus for weekly two-hour classes on international relations and to participate for free in YIRA’s annual Yale Model United Nations (YMUN) conference, which brings almost 1,500 high school students to campus to debate world issues. Hemispheres participants also take a trip to the U.N. and — new this year — can get help with homework and the college application process during optional bi-monthly Saturday morning mentoring sessions with their Yale teachers. Some 20 Yale undergraduates serve as Hemisphere teachers/mentors.

“The study of international relations is not very prominent in many high schools,” says Jan Wilk ’15, who co-directs the program with Deirdre Dlugoleski ’13 and Grayson Clary ’14. “Hemispheres gives high school students the chance to expand their knowledge about international relations while also learning such skills as public speaking and debate. The first part of the semester, we focus on learning basics to prepare them for the YMUN conference. In the second semester, Hemispheres teachers devote time to more specific topics, such as global food policy. For the students, it’s fun to be able to come to the campus to learn about world issues and challenges, and for the Yale teachers, it’s an opportunity to share our own interest in international relations with enthusiastic learners.”

Hemisphere participants, who this year hail from nine different New Haven area high schools, often learn about the program from Yale undergraduates who volunteer through Dwight Hall as public school interns, while others were recommended to join the program by siblings or friends who have taken part. Yale’s Office of New Haven & State Affairs also publicizes the program in city high schools.

“I signed up for Hemispheres my freshman year,” says Hill Regional Career High School junior Tanvi Patel. “I like that we get to sit with students our own age who are interested in what is going on the world. I love YMUN, which is one of the activities that have kept me coming back each year. The trips we’ve taken to the United Nations have also been great; each time we’ve met with a U.N. representative who has spoken very passionately about his or her work there and has talked to us as equals. I also enjoy that our Yale teachers explore issues in ways that make connections to our own lives.”

This term, the Yale students, who volunteer their time, took part in a special teaching workshop aimed at ensuring that all their classes are highly interactive, according to Dlugoleski, who led the training session.

“Our lessons are objective-based, so we use techniques that actively engage students,” she says. “One important element of class time is having students work together in small groups to arrive at a solution for a challenging problem together.” Dlugoleski also meets with Yale peers during the week before they teach to review the lesson plans. Each week’s lesson is conducted by three to five Yale students.

Dlugoleski became interested in YIRA during her Bulldog Days visit to campus as a prospective Yale student. She has studied in Spain and Oman, and worked this summer in Turkey. One of her interests as a Hemispheres leader, she says, is to help the high school students become informed voters.

“It’s important for all of us to know the challenges other nations are facing and the ways that nations can collaborate to address them,” says Dlugoleski.

Wilk, who is from Germany, notes that the Yale teachers are majoring in a myriad of subjects and this year come from five different continents — thus offering varied international perspectives as teachers.

“One of the coolest experiences for me was a visit to the United Nations, where we met with the U.S. deputy permanent representative to the U.N.,” he says. “The Hemispheres students asked questions that were as intelligent as those asked by the Yale students. That’s one of my favorite aspects of being involved in Hemispheres: seeing how much the students learn and progress.”

Hemispheres is one of several YIRA programs for high school students. In addition to YMUN, YIRA has for the past two years offered a summer residential camp that engages students in international relations through a model United Nations experience. One of the largest undergraduate student groups at Yale (with more than 300 members), YIRA also recently expanded to three new countries, hosting over 500 students at inaugural sessions of the Yale Model Government Europe Conference in Prague and the YMUN Korea conference in Seoul. The organization most recently finalized an agreement with WELAND International, an educational group in China, to host 1,000 students this year at the inaugural YMUN in China.

“YIRA deliberately integrates Yale’s educational model and culture into our conferences and institutes, and even hosted information sessions via Skype between participants in our events and Yale admissions officers last year,” says Frank Costa, former YIRA president. “I saw thousands of top high school students in Europe and Asia arrive unaware that Yale was even a possibility for them, and thousands leave excited about the serious prospect of applying to study at Yale.”

Wilk, Dlugoleski, and Clary are particularly excited about the new Saturday morning mentoring sessions, which allow them to give more individual attention to the Hemispheres participants who attend.

“It’s great to be able to help the students with college applications,” says Clary. “At these sessions, we also have the chance to do other interesting activities; for example, we recently watched a Turkish movie about Istanbul and then compared what we learned with urban planning issues in New Haven. Being involved in YIRA and Hemispheres has been one of the highlights for me as a Yale student.”

Ansonia High School students and sisters Rhianna and Reaghan Bennett say that they also look forward each week to their Hemispheres class and YMUN.

“It’s fun to have a whole group of teenagers getting together to talk about the problems going on in the world,” says Rhianna Bennett, a freshman. “It’s great to be able to come to Yale for classes and to take part in YMUN to share that interest. I’m really interested in international relations, and I’m thinking about going into it as a career. I’ve learned a lot in Hemispheres, so spending extra time in class after my regular school day is really worth it.”