Dan Rankin | Special to the Stratford Gazette
Early Monday morning, 16 students and some faculty at the Nancy Campbell Collegiate Institute in Stratford were gathered at the school’s Waterloo Street campus to take part in a one-of-a-kind video conference between three schools in three different countries.
Several hours away, five students at Stuyvesant High School, on Manhattan’s lower west side in New York City, were similarly assembled. But it was on the other side of the world, at Shixi High School in Shanghai, China, where these North American students had their attention fixed.
At that school, former US president Jimmy Carter and his wife of 68 years, Rosalynn, were appearing before an assembly of about 100 students, staff and media. There on stage in an auditorium in Shanghai – thanks to technology that was barely conceived of back when he was in office – the former president was able to see and answer questions from students around the world.
The conference was made possible through several student ambassador programs connecting the various schools and nations. The programs have let Nancy Campbell stay in touch with a number of influential institutions in China, principal Gordon Naylor said.
“We’ve had at least two visits back and forth with them,” he explained. “(Shixi) is one of nine schools that’s very influential in the progress of education in Shanghai and ultimately in China. It has a lot to do with reform of education.”
Carter, 89, came on stage around 7:40 a.m. (7:40 p.m. Shanghai time) and gave a short speech about his relationship with China, and particularly the diplomatic role he played there in the late 1970s.
“From 1949 to 1979, we had no diplomatic relations,” the president said. “I was working with Deng Xiaoping, a great leader of China, and he and I negotiated in secret.
Eventually we reached an agreement that we would establish diplomatic relations between China and the United States.”
Today, he said, there are 240,000 Chinese students studying in the USA in high schools and universities.
“It’s very important for us to continue to learn about each other,” he said. “That’s the basis for peace, friendship, economic development, prosperity and for a good life.”
Then it was time for the students’ questions. One of Nancy Campbell's international students, Liza Lotfali, a Grade 12 student from Australia, asked Carter what motivated him to lead a life committed to service.
“I had a favourite teacher who said we must accommodate changing times by clinging to principles that never change,” he said. “That’s been the guiding light of my life. It’s very important for us to look at principles that never change. One is human rights, another is peace, another is freedom and another one is a chance for every person to develop.”
He said he hoped all of the students listening to him Monday dedicated part of their lives to serving others.
“You can all be public servants even if you don’t get elected to public office,” he said.
The other lucky Nancy Campbell student to ask Carter a question was Grade 12 student Chayan Dehghan. He asked the president for advice on how to get started making a difference in the world.
“I think the thing to do is to learn as much as possible about people who are different from you, not just people that talk the same language or are members of your own family and your friends,” Carter said. “Do what you can do to make their lives better.”
Following the conference, the local students were excited and inspired by what they’d heard.
“This experience to speak with this president was amazing,” said Brazilian Grade 11 student Marcela Figueiredo.
“It wasn’t something you’d expect to happen in your high school,” added Anita Sadeghi, Grade 12. “It was very eye-opening and it just shows everything is possible with education. It made me want to be more of a world citizen.”
Towards the end of the conference, Carter left his young audience with a thought about the importance of education in improving the world.
“You can’t make a person have a better life unless you understand that person and what their problems are,” he said. “If you have a good education, you can devise a way to solve their problems along with your own.
“The future of our countries is in your hands.”