“Watching the young people at this conference inspired me to think about the connection between participation in student governments in colleges around the world as they relate to governments of the countries these students were from.”
This summer I had the opportunity to travel to Moscow, Russia with a youth-run organization called College-100. I was there with young leaders, mostly current and former Student Government presidents from the United States and Canada. In addition to the numerous meetings we attended in Moscow, we also went to the Seliger International Youth Forum with young leaders from around the world. Having studied abroad in Russia in 2009, it was wonderful to return, to spend time in Russia’s birch-filled countryside while engaging in peer to peer dialogue and diplomacy.
At the International Seliger Youth Forum I spoke about the importance of women’s involvement in civil discourse, and the U.S. Constitution as the inspiration behind our college’s Student Government constitutions, and the work we did while serving in those roles. I talked about the importance of women running for student-elected positions in college and the importance of student engagement to make effective change. I was joined in these efforts by a fellow Seven Sisters graduate and former Student Government president, Yong Jung Cho, a Bryn Mawr graduate, who told me, “I was surprised by the impressive and diverse group of participants at the Forum; and I was excited to realize that many of us shared a common sense of purpose, we wanted to make a positive impact on our society.”
Watching the young people at this conference inspired me to think about the connection between participation in student governments in colleges around the world as they relate to governments of the counties these students were from. How likely is a group of students going to have a successful, democratically elected student government if the very country those individuals live in does not promote or live those values? If student organizations exist in a nation of corrupt processes, are they likely to mimic them? These are the things I asked throughout the Forum while I talked to students from the Middle-East, Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, Eurasia, and Europe.
My trip to Russia raised many questions; how do young adults model democratic processes through student government and what impact can such experiences have in the shaping of larger public discourse in non-democratic countries? Do students have a sense of self-agency and what does it look like?
Being one of the few women from the United States, I talked about the challenges women face in positions of leadership, public policy, politics and overall, in public service in the United States. I engaged in a conversation and led a workshop regarding the importance of women running for office while they are in college and how that experience gives women the confidence to later run for public office. After all, a democracy is never truly a democracy until women are equally a part of its processes.
Reading about a situation, a place, or a movement is never the same as engaging directly with those who are a part of a movement. One of Russia’s political theorists, Alexander Herzen, believed that what makes big questions about history, liberty, etc. more powerful and meaningful is their specificity–when they are placed in a particular time, space, or moment. My trip confirmed his sentiments. While the participants in the conference represented the globe and our conversations reflected that, the context of the Forum, meeting in Russia, informed our discussions as well. In fact, before going to the Forum our delegation met with Russian opposition leaders; we stood outside the court where the members of Pussy Riot were being tried; we met with the representatives of Yabloko, the Russian United Democratic party. These meetings brought to light the importance of youth in the shaping of public discourse, and the importance and value of democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law, none of which have a strong hold in Russia today. Charles North, USAID Mission Director, and U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul both spent time with our delegation, while Natalya Budaeva, Country Directory of the International Republican Institute in Moscow, accompanied us to our meetings. During that week, we did not theorize; instead we focused and engaged in conversations that were grounded in specificity.
If I want to know, to understand, and to convey–it is up to me to listen, learn, connect, and build on not only the big and small, but on the past and the present while working on creating the future. The future I envision is one in which peace and democracy are viewed and are understood to be universal values that bind all humanity together in the world. The future that I envision encourages people like myself to engage in conversation and dialogue with people who see and understand this world with differentiating paradigms in mind. Most importantly, as someone who values and believes in the importance of democracy and what it means for this world, when people talk about bringing about change in the world maybe they should start with young people.
Marija Tesla graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 2011 where she studied English and Russian Language and Literature. Her senior year she wrote a creative writing honors thesis focusing on the stories of women and children during the 1990s war in Croatia. She graduated with high honors, Phi Beta Kappa.