Rethinking study abroad, diverse youth travel to China and Middle East

Youth participate in a warm-up game during a OneWorld Now! global leadership workshop.

Study abroad is a defining experience for many high school and college students. But often the students who have access to those programs are white and upper/middle class.

One Seattle program hopes to change that. 

Forty plus high school students pack into a YMCA room. What looks a round of fun, high-energy games is actually addressing serious conversations of race, class and privilege.

The students play several games over two hours, and tensions between the “Diamonds”,” “Spades,” and “Hearts” run high. Spades win round after round; the Diamonds and Hearts, disgruntled and discouraged.

But there’s a twist. The judges rigged the game in several ways for Spades to triumph and Diamonds to lose, the instructor revealed. In one example, a judge said “diamonds, minus one point for talking,” in reality hearing nothing.

Uproar ensued. Of course, there’s a lesson.

It shows how little we question authority, one student volunteers.

A member from the Spades compares his team’s advantage to that of white privilege.

“In life, you will always have to admit that someone has an advantage,” another said.

Students play  a team-building game that illustrates privilege and relationships to authority.
Students play  a team-building game that illustrates privilege and relationships to authority.

In the game of life, the predominantly minority and low-income students in the room are usually the disadvantaged.

But OneWorld Now! (OWN), a global leadership program serving underprivileged youth in Seattle is helping change that, partly through leadership games and workshops like this one.

For many U.S. college students, studying abroad has become a rite of passage, with assistance to send them to nearly any geographical coordinate on the map.

But less than one percent of students study abroad while in high school, a time that OWN director Kristin Hayden views crucial to gaining an international perspective.

Hayden studied abroad in apartheid South Africa when she was just 15. By 17 she was in Moscow on the brink of the Soviet Union’s fall.

These intense political climates fired a passion for social justice in Hayden, as she realized the only fellow American students in her midst looked just like her: white.

“It creates a warped perspective of what it means to be an American,” Hayden said, “perpetuating a stereotype that [locals] are already seeing in the media.”

Not only are study abroad participants lacking in ethnic diversity, she said the majority are middle/upper class.

Hayden’s global curiosity led her to social entrepreneurship.

“We need innovative solutions to the world’s most challenging problems,” she said. And these students might be the answer.

Founded in 2002, the organization—now also expanded to Oahu, Hawaii—serves eight Seattle high schools, two middle schools and has helped send more than 1,000 youth abroad to China and the Middle East.

Marginalized youth are not receiving the support at the high school level to go onto four-year universities, Hayden said, meaning they miss out on the chance to study abroad.  Contrastingly, Hayden estimates that 99 percent of OWN students attend college through help of the program.

Students prep for the program for an entire year, studying either Chinese or Arabic and attending leadership workshops. Afterward the program sends high achieving and motivated students to study abroad on full or partial scholarship.

“It sounds really simple,” Hayden said of their token leadership, language and study abroad approach. “But nobody is doing these three things together in an integrated way.”

Despite the increasing relevance of Arabic and Chinese, only about one percent of high school students are taught either language.

Philmon Haile offers OWN students advice.
Philmon Haile offers OWN students advice.

OWN aligns with 2009 Obama administration initiative “100,000 strong,” designed to dramatically increase the number and diversify the composition of American students studying in China— a nod to the growing political, economic and cultural ties between the countries.

Philmon Haile, 21, became one of these students when he studied abroad in China through OWN four years ago.

Before traveling to China for a year, Haile had scarcely left Seattle so he felt a bit like “a fish coming out of water and walking on land.”

Since then, he has been back three times: first to study literature, history and education through his university, again to work on fieldwork in leprosy colonies and the last as an intern at the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

Now, he studies International Studies at UW with a focus on Chinese and Middle Eastern studies, and takes Arabic classes.

And he is already planning his fifth trip. Collaborating with a team of professors, he conducts developmental research about farmers in a remote region in China in hopes this will lead to fieldwork this summer.

With Hayden, he embodies the grassroots organization of Seattle Strong, a partnership with the White House initiative to help fundraise and find sponsors for OWN.

Last week, Haile and Hayden attended a “100,000 Strong” event hosted by Hilary Clinton in Washington D.C., launching the shift of the program to an independent nongovernmental organization.

In the future, Haile hopes to join the Foreign Service and become a diplomat.

“It’s cliché to say that [students] are the leaders of the next generation—but it’s true,” Haile said of his commitment to OWN.


  1. “A member from the Spades compares his team’s advantage to that of white privilege”.

    Gag me with a spoon

    1. Sir or mam, whatever you are. If you choose to hate on the ideas of aspiring young teenagers, do so on your own. These teenagers do not assume and they do not judge, but they just speak of history. Though the comment was racist, they do know what they are talking about. Also, would you like a metal of wooden spoon?

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