Illinois Academy Mines International Gems

By Sean Cavanagh — November 26, 2003 6 min read
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It’s been a hectic semester for at least one junior at Glenbrook North High School in suburban Chicago. Honors courses in English and precalculus. A third year of German, with tougher readings and translations. There’s an American history class—for Advanced Placement credit—and don’t forget business law, and physics, too.

And oh, yes, one more thing: that assignment to halt the flow of unregulated diamonds from Sierra Leone, an illicit trade suspected of relying on forced labor, financing civil wars across western Africa, and bankrolling world terrorist organizations.

Over the past few months, Kendall Dollive, 16, and a select group of high school students across Illinois have taken part in an extracurricular program that asks them to craft solutions to some of the most intractable international problems—the illegal diamond trade included.

Each year, about 70 juniors and seniors around the state take part in a state- financed program known as the Illinois International Career Academy. Students are nominated from a group of about 12 participating high schools.

“We work as a group,” said Ms. Dollive of Northbrook, Ill. “Everybody is contributing. When you have that environment, you come up with ideas that you wouldn’t have on your own.”

State officials launched the academy three years ago. They hope it will expand students’ understanding of other cultures, lead them to international careers, and help nurture connections between Illinois businesses and the world economy.

Topics aren’t drawn from a textbook; they’re taken from the troubles roiling different regions of the world from week to week. As that tumult unfolds, students are expected to keep up to date and modify their proposals accordingly—a requirement that the academy’s supporters say tests students in ways that many international high school programs do not.

The students’ work faces considerable scrutiny. Their projects are presented to international experts, such as staff members from foreign consulates and the International Monetary Fund. Over the past few years, topics have included studies of the Argentine economy, China’s movement to a free market, and the reconstruction of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.

“It’s a matter of watching the news and judging where the conflicts are, what the problems are,” said Carl Heine, the director of the academy, which is based in Aurora, Ill. He chooses topics with the help of program advisers.

“It’s a little bit of fortune-telling,” he said.

Far From Chicago

Once students are assigned a topic, they work within small groups, usually from their own schools. They research issues on their own and share ideas by e-mail, the Internet, even videoconferencing.

The high schoolers are attracted to the program for different reasons. Some intend to study foreign affairs in college; others hope to work in international business; a few already harbor aspirations to work in the Foreign Service.

For Ms. Dollive, the spark came at an early age, far from Chicago’s North Shore suburbs. Six years ago, her family was living in Zurich, where her father was assigned to work for an American company in the Swiss metropolis. In the street and on the bus, she heard French, German, and Italian, in all their permutations. At the age of 10, she was determined to become a citizen of the world. (“Teenage Détente,” this issue.)

“It was very humbling, knowing that your bus driver could speak three or four languages, and you could only speak one,” she recalled.

Today, like many of her peers in the academy, Ms. Dollive finds that her multinational bent extends beyond her school day. She’s studied French, Spanish, and German, and is involved in a local chapter of Amnesty International. She hopes one day to attend Georgetown University’s renowned School of Foreign Service, in Washington.

“The students who are attracted to this program are involved in so many other aspects of their school lives,” said Hilary Rosenthal, a history and psychology teacher at Glenbrook South High, who helps coordinate activities for the academy there. Those far-ranging interests can make it a challenge to organize research and produce cohesive projects, she said.

Her students turn out solid work, nonetheless. Ms. Rosenthal was especially proud of a project the students completed over the summer in which they were asked to come up with ways to encourage inflation in the Japanese economy, while allowing consumers to save money and invest at the same time.

Students from Glenbrook South and Glenbrook North—who worked together on that project and others—proposed that Japanese consumers turn in receipts for certain goods they had purchased, through which they could secure government bonds. That process would enable the economy to grow and the public to save, the students argued.

“A brilliant idea,” Ms. Rosenthal declared.

Backers of the academy hope it continues. That will depend partly on state funding, which stands at $165,000 for this fiscal year. Despite the state’s uncertain budget, Mr. Heine hopes eventually to “institutionalize” the program, and sell state leaders on its continued value.

The program receives its funding through the Illinois board of higher education’s budget. “This stuff is so fluid,” said Don J. Sevener, a spokesman for the board. “We don’t know what [future] budgets look like at this point.”

Competing Interests

Ms. Dollive and her peers from Glenbrook North and Glenbrook South high schools had more urgent concerns as they drove to Bloomington, Ill., on Nov. 8. They were headed to the International Career Academy’s fall summit.

They convened alongside student teams from Urbana, Carbondale, and other parts of the state, each with its own ideas about how to prevent the sale of “conflict diamonds"— minerals that originate from areas controlled by factions other than legitimate governments and are sold to finance military activity. Reviewing their five- to six-minute presentations, along with Mr. Heine, was a representative of the U.S. Department of State, Kathleen Walz, an expert on the diamond trade.

Some student groups suggested the launch of a worldwide publicity campaign to block the passage of unregulated diamonds into certain countries. Others argued for disrupting the trade by focusing on the flow of illegal arms.

The Glenbrook delegation advocated a much stricter inspection process, in the hope of reducing suspected bribe-taking and other corruption that allows the illicit trade to flourish. Human rights organizations and international peacekeepers could be invited to oversee that process, they suggested.

Like the other groups, the Glenbrook team was also asked to evaluate the proposed solutions from the perspective of an outside party. Ms. Dollive and her group were assigned the roles of representatives of the diamond industry, such as the De Beers corporation.

As diamond producers, the Glenbrook students supported tougher inspections, but also worried about the wave of bad press sweeping over their trade. Some buyers might turn to artificially produced diamonds, the students suggested, crippling the industry and unfairly punishing African nations whose economies rely on the legitimate trade.

The plan for tougher inspections satisfied Becky Bierman, a senior at Glenbrook South, located in Glenview. Through her research, and that of her student colleagues, she learned about the route the glittering minerals follow, from the mines to storefront windows. She also discovered how a piece of that process has been corrupted, and how difficult it is to fix.

“It’s so different, and not something you get to study in your social studies class at school,” said Ms. Bierman, a 17-year-old with interests in Russian-language study and ballet. “You have to get up-to-the-minute information about the issue you’re looking at, because it can affect the work you’re doing.”

Coverage of cultural under-standing and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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