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Tribal students travel to Hawaii for Close Up Asia Pacific program

It took a journey about 5,000 miles from home for a group of Tribal students to understand first-hand how international diplomacy works, and sometimes doesn’t.

Twelve students from Big Cypress, Brighton, Hollywood and Immokalee attended the Close Up Asia Pacific program held in Honolulu, Hawaii from Feb. 15 to 21.

The program focused on foreign policy and included an international relations simulation, during which the students role-played as leaders of various nations.

A group of students hold the tiller of a sailboat at the Polynesian Voyaging Society. The tiller steers the double hulled canoe/sailboat by moving the rudder under the water. (Courtesy photo)

Seminole students have been attending the Close Up program in Washington D.C. for about 21 years, but this was the first time they participated in the Asia Pacific program.

In the D.C. program, students learn how to relate and communicate with the U.S. government as a sovereign nation. The Hawaii program is similar, but on a global scale.

“Students learned to negotiate diplomatically from one region to another,” said Alvaro Perez, Center for Student Success and Services assistant director. “Real life issues were discussed, including how the coronavirus is impacting tourism and trade between China and the rest of the world, other countries and your own local government.”

The high school students, which included groups from the Tribe, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Apache Nation of New Mexico and School of the Sacred Heart Academy in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, were divided into four groups for the three day international relations simulation.

Each group was assigned a fictional Pacific nation for which they had to make decisions by negotiating with the other countries. Each country was ruled by a different type of government including democracies and dictatorships.

The participants in the Close Up Asia Pacific program gather for a photo at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies. (Courtesy photo)

During the simulation, students discussed culture, economics, the environment and each country’s federal policies.

“They had to negotiate treaties and trade deals,” said Shavonna Daniels, CSSS K-12 program manager. “They each had a press secretary, communicated with news outlets and live tweeted.”

“It was very engaging,” added Keivon Bell, CSSS K-12 project coordinator. “They had to figure out how to make their own countries better and work with other nations.”

Exploring the beaches of Hawaii was one of the recreational activities during the Close Up Asia Pacific program. (Courtesy photo)

The simulation focused on how foreign policy is developed and implemented and how nations work to promote their own interests and values as they manage their relations with other nations.

Students learned one of the biggest challenges is balancing core national values, ideals and commitments with necessary actions and choices that must be made.

“They had to learn to work with other people, and they weren’t all native,” said chaperone Mariann Billie, who is also Mahala Billie Osceola’s mother.

Exploring the beaches of Hawaii was one of the recreational activities during the Close Up Asia Pacific program. (Courtesy photo)

“There were obstacles they had to work out to be able to help each other. Even though we aren’t the same, we all have to learn to work together.”

Ahfachkee ninth grader Carlise Bermudez and University School senior Chandler Demayo enjoyed the simulation. Even though their country was a dictatorship, they learned decisions aren’t just made by one person; a lot of different people had to weigh in first.

“Our country wanted to go to war, nuclear war,” Bermudez said. “But it didn’t pass. It showed me that high schoolers running a country is not a good thing.”

During the simulation each country had to negotiate with each other using the tools of foreign policy which include intelligence and information, diplomacy, aid, economic development and trade, and military influence or force.

“We interacted as diplomats, leaders and security advisors,” Demayo said. “It was funny that it almost escalated to nuclear war and interesting to see how diplomacy works between nations. Our country had a dispute about islands the other countries had claim to, but we had the most resources and power.”

Both students said the simulation was a good experience.

“Our country was overpopulated so bombs would have solved our problem,” Bermudez said. “Again, high schoolers running a country. Most of the other countries were mad at us because we were only for ourselves and didn’t care about the other countries.”

In the end, thanks to the skills of a skilled debater on their team, Bermudez’s and Demayo’s country negotiated and got the extra land they needed without giving anything in return.

Students listen to a lecture about international relations during the Close Up Asia Pacific program. (Courtesy photo)

“The curriculum provided so much rigor for the students and aligned with what they do every day in school, such as language, social studies, math and science,” Daniels said. “It was an enriching program.”

The week wasn’t all work; the students had a chance to experience the lifestyle and history of Hawaii.

They hiked Diamond Head, an inactive volcano, went to the aquarium, surfing, a luau and visited the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies. A nature preserve, state park and Waikiki beach were also on the schedule.

“It was wonderful,” Bermudez said. “The first night we wore our traditional clothing and some kids had never seen that before. We showed the other kids who we are and that we are still here. By the end of the week we were all good friends and it was sad to see them go.”

Perez said the Asia Pacific program was more rigorous than the D.C. program, but the long distance travel added another dimension to the week.

“It taught the kids to be flexible and more independent,” he said. “Flexibility and getting out of their comfort zone was a really big thing for these kids. It is non-tangible, you can’t measure it. But that was also part of the learning process.”

Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at