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Video Conference Unites Students on Three Continents

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA

Discrimination, school funding and teen pregnancy grabbed the attention of high school students from around the world who gathered for a World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh-sponsored video conference Wednesday.

“We found it really valuable for our students here in southwestern Pennsylvania to connect with their peers, their counterparts around the world and through the video conferencing we are able to do that,” said World Affairs Council President Steve Sokol. “What’s closer to home for the kids than education? They spend all day everyday in schools. So getting kids to talk with other kids about education, about their expectations from their educational institutions, about their hopes their goals their objectives and some of the challenges facing educational institutions.”

The students quickly cut through the basics. Students at the National Dali High School in Dali, Taiwan go to school from 7:20 a.m. to 5 p.m. Students at the United Church School in Johannesburg, South Africa take four core classes and three electives.

From there the students began to ask questions and share experiences that would be more commonly debated at an international education symposium. Issues such as how the past still has a negative impact on the education system in South Africa.

“Education in South Africa has always been political,” said a student at the United Church School.   “Meaning education has always been there to serve the interests of certain groups of people like whites during apartheid years where black children had to be taught by unskilled teachers with no electricity in over crowded classrooms with poor resources.”

And the discrimination does not stop with the color of one’s skin. The students in Johannesburg spoke of the gap between the low quality of the schools in rural areas and the relatively good schools in cities, the barriers that stand between girls and a good education and much more.

Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA
World affairs Council President Steve Sokol opens the multi-site video conference Wednesday at Duquesne University.

“Education in our country I would say has not accomplished its purpose,” said another student. “We have a lot of teenage pregnancy going on, with an estimated 66 percent on teen pregnancy. Drop out rate is quite high, unemployment is very, very high.”

With that in mind, Moon Area High School Student Deepshika Sharma took the mic and asked the students overseas what they thought about the education system in the U.S.

”You put a lot of emphasis on extra curricular activities instead of your academic performance, right?” said a student in Taiwan.

“From what we see you are a well-rounded education and more diverse,” added his teacher.

Those thoughts were followed by the South African students who praised the U.S. education system for its public funding, its abundance of resources and its inclusion of sports activities, which they feel improve academic performance. 

Several of the South Africans opined that a sports program would help to motivate their fellow students to do better in class and stay in school. They also called for scholarships to colleges and universities as a way to motivate students to improve test scores.

As the four-way video conference began to wrap up, email contacts were exchanged and a U.S. participant asked the students overseas what they would change about their schools. 

“I wish the government could find one system, one education system or one syllabus that they can stick to and not change every single time because when they change, we find that learners do even worse than they were doing before,” answered a South African Student. 

Alexis Prettyman from Penn-Trafford High school said the event was “an incredible opportunity.”

“If feel like even though we are so far away … we are very similar in many ways,” Prettyman said. “When we were asked about the hardships, the South African school in Johannesburg said that one of the things they found was that there was an increase in teen pregnancies, and we find that in our schools too. So I found that interesting that we have some similar hardships.”

She said even when the responses from South Africa and Taiwan simply reaffirmed her assumptions, it was nice to hear it directly from them, rather than from another source.