WAYS campers experience virtual sessions, explore worldwide refugee crises

August 4, 2020

For the 33rd consecutive year, the Auburn University College of Education hosted the World Affairs Youth Seminar (WAYS). The seminar is the oldest educational outreach camp at Auburn University, and one of Auburn’s very few non-STEM related academic camps. The camp receives financial support from the Sunrise Rotary Club, which has been part of the program from the beginning.

The big difference this year came in the form of attendance. In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, students from around the country participated remotely via Zoom sessions. Although the opportunity to be on Auburn’s campus was not available, ten young scholars were still part of the program this year, hailing from as far away as Chicago, California, Colorado, New Jersey, and New York.

The 2020 WAYS camp was directed by Jesús A. Tirado, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor in the college’s Secondary Social Studies Education program. It was his first time directing the camp.

“Our topic this year was refugees,” he explained. “In addition to the high school students doing research on a variety of topics, we heard from experts from universities around the country including Butler, College of Charleston, and Auburn, as well as a representative of a Non-Government Organization (NGO) called Fortify Rights, which works in the realm of human rights violations.”

For four consecutive days in late July, the students learned about refugee crises in Syria and Southeast Asia, with a particular emphasis on the Rohingya, as well as the asylum crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the crisis in Venezuela as it relates to the United Nations Food Programme. More than 20 percent of Venezuelans suffer from hunger and food insecurity. The week began with an historical overview of refugees, and the U.S. response to refugees.

In addition to the Zoom lectures and guided research on the issues, each student is assigned to represent a country, and the seminar concludes with a multi-day UN-style session where the issues are debated. Regardless of students’ personal views of the issues, they must learn their country’s position, and represent these positions in what often become passionate encounters.

“I believe that what students walked away with is that this is a much more complex issue than our local politics really allow us to discuss,” Tirado said. “And there were several surprising revelations that came out of our studies. We learned that the definition of ‘refugee’ has not been updated since 1951. Another takeaway was that, counter to what many would think, recent Republican presidents have taken in far more refugees than their Democratic counterparts. Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush led the way, while Clinton and Obama pulled back. Currently, President Trump has used executive orders to drastically cut back on our country’s required minimum intake of 50,000 refugees per year.”

Tirado noted that the high school students really dove into their roles as UN representatives, but also had strong feelings individually outside of their assigned country’s role.

An important part of the WAYS camp is the leadership provided by the college’s pre-service teachers, who direct various segments of the program. This year there were eight Auburn undergrads filling these roles, including Rebecca Bostrom, Carrie Courtney, Kara Downs, Katherine Friday, Tanner Hardy, Evan Klugh, Jacob Patterson, and Gabi Thomas. As was the case last year, doctoral student Nicholas Phillips provided strong leadership throughout the week.

For his part, Tirado is the child of immigrants, who came to the United States from northern Mexico.

“Their immigrant experience — seeing how hard it is to immigrate here and how they developed their network from the ground up – has been very influential for me,” he said. “I am always thinking about social networks. The nice thing about growing up with immigrants and the places we have lived is that you learn a lot about other cultures. My mother worked at the university’s international center when my dad was a student at LSU, so some of my best friends have been Chinese, Iranians, Nigerian, and Indians”

Tirado, who took two degrees from Yale before teaching high school in New Haven and earning his doctorate at the University of Georgia, said his family’s first year on the Plains has been good, despite the pandemic.

“We’re doing well,” he said. “My wife is an educator as well, and we have two young children. We find the Southern town is very friendly and you can always be outside and see people since the weather is so mild. We have actually gotten to know more of our neighbors during the shutdown. It has been a strange year, but a good one.”

“I feel fortunate to be in the college and part of a really strong department,” he concluded. “It was things like the WAYS camp that attracted me to Auburn. I think it’s very important that we do our part and not just leave everything to the schools. The students who were part of our camp remind me of the power of learning, and the importance of education to our democracy.”