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Illinois Students Learn To Collaborate And Solve Problems On A Global Scale

Illinois Global Scholar

Every Illinois Global Scholar capstone project starts with a question. It’s a program aimed at helping students operate in cultural contexts beyond their own and enact change on a global scale. Braden Hajer’s was a bit unusual: Can misinformation be used...for positive purposes?

The 2021 high school graduate quickly discovered the answer was a resounding “no.” But with a semester still left to try and make tangible change, he quickly altered course.

“To not fall for misinformation, you need to understand how it works. So that's where we're like, ‘Huh, that's a job for education. If it's a job for education, that's a job for legislation,” he said.

So, he thought, does Illinois have any laws mandating media literacy in schools? It didn’t.

“People love to complain about how school doesn't teach you what you need to know,” said Hajer. “Hopefully, this is one of those times where someone can look at a class and be like, ‘Huh, that's pragmatic.’”

That semester-long research turned into a senior year-spanning marathon of calls with state representatives, witness slips and committee testimonies over Zoom. In the end, the bill was passed.It’s no wonder Hajer’s pursuing political science in college this year.

The capstone project isn’t the only part of the Global Scholar Program. For high schoolers to earn the certification, they have to hit four requirements, including globally-focused courses and service-learning.

Seth Brady is a social studies teacher at Naperville Central High School and is a project director for its Global Scholars, including Hajer.

“That process of asking an actionable question, seeking out experts --- the role of the expert is not just as a source, it's to review the artifact students end up producing -- and then actually looking to affect measurable change has been utterly transformative,” said Brady.

The Illinois Global Scholar Program has been around since 2017. Brady was part of a coalition of teachers, administrators and business supports who pushed for the global competency certificate. He even received a $100,000 grant to help start a service-learning project examining water quality.

They’re still working on expanding the program across the state, but last year over 100 students became Illinois Global Scholars.

Brady says several students have received scholarship opportunities and internships related to their capstone projects. Other global scholars have had their work published right away in professional journals and interrogated issues like fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone.

Even though physical travel for her project wasn’t possible thanks to COVID-19, Aastha Chouhan’s semester-long work was focused on India. She was another of Brady’s students this past year.

Chouhan’s question asked about why there is so much of a stigma around sexual education in South Asia?

“Even living here, I've lived in America since I was three -- I've experienced it. Even being so far removed,” she said. “I've seen all of my family and friends who are from South Asian communities experience that as well. Why did that happen? And like, how to what can we do to combat it?”

Her research found that it hasn’t always been extremely taboo.

Chouhan says India used to be more tolerant of queer identities. In some areas of the country, menstruation was sacred. Western Colonialism repressed much of that and she says corruption in modern Indian politics only perpetuates the stigma today.

She reached out to Indian grassroots sexual education and mental health organizations through Instagram and started volunteering remotely.

She says sexual health curriculum requirements don’t really exist in Indian schools.

“I was talking to some people I was working with and they said that even if they had a chapter on like the reproductive system or something, the teacher would just completely skip over it,” said Chouhan.

Now, she’s building an educational website geared towards younger kids. There are tabs for everything from reproductive anatomy, puberty, menstruation and LGBTQ+ history.

Chouhan says even though social media has increased educational resources at their disposal, there’s still not nearly enough available for people to access, especially in rural parts of India.

“I think it's really important to understand the history of sexual health and how not having sexual freedom has been used to oppress and manipulate groups of people in the past,” she said.

Neither Chouhan nor Hajer says they had any idea of the scale of tangible change they were capable of through the program. Hajer says he sees now that there aren’t nearly as many barriers to the political system as he thought. And Chouhan was able to take on a problem half a world away during a pandemic.

Their teacher Seth Brady says the ability to connect with real experts and collaborate in different cultural contexts gives students like Hajer and Chouhan a major leg up. And the experience of making real change in high school gives them the confidence to confront any problem they may see for the rest of their life.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.