Willamette University, Students at the Mill Stream

Willamette Academy students attend IDEA Youth Forum in Bosnia and Herzegovina

"In the USA, there's this whole clash of cultures, but here it's cool because everybody clashes in debates... It's a really great chance to get to know people from all of these different places, without the tension that we have in the US."

IDEA GroupShamir Cervantes just returned from the Youth Forum, an annual debate and cultural exchange event hosted by the International Debate Education Association (IDEA). During more than two weeks at the Forum, Shamir and his Willamette Academy classmates, Andrea Alaniz and Devon Cardoza, have debated, danced, shared stories and played pool with high school students from 30 different countries. All in a mountain setting just outside Sarajevo.

Shamir, 16, was chosen from a pool of hundreds of applicants for Willamette Academy, a pre-college access program located at Willamette University. Shamir recognizes that few people his age have the opportunity to travel abroad, and even fewer encounter so many cultures in one place. Shamir, Mexican-born and Oregon-raised, roomed with Nicola, a young man from Croatia. "I consider Nicola to be one of my best friends, no matter how far away he is."

Willamette Academy students Shamir, Devon and Andrea entered the world of debate in April, when another IDEA program, the Youth Leadership Program with Bosnia and Herzegovina, came to Willamette. 18 students from Bosnia and Herzegovina traveled to Salem for a month to learn about American democracy, active citizenship and debate. Shamir, Devon, Andrea and their Academy classmates learned to debate in classes with their foreign peers.

The April program culminated in a championship debate. Shamir, Devon and Andrea, the top Willamette Academy debaters, competed in mixed teams alongside the top debaters from Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The crowd of 80 spectators included five judges of the Oregon Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, who announced the winning team and offered personal feedback to each student.

Just a few months later, the students from Bosnia and Herzegovina reunited with their American friends at the Youth Forum in Sarajevo.  This time, the Americans were the foreigners.  At the Opening Assembly, students and teachers cheered for Shamir, the first representative from Mexico to participate in an IDEA Youth Forum.  (Shamir is a Mexican citizen who resides in the U.S.) 

Students later attended the Cultural Expo, an evening at the Forum that had students trying different food, clothes, dances and experiences. Shamir brought a mokohete, a stone mortar and pestle used for grinding salsa, and spicy chicken-shaped lollipops. Students from all over the world stopped by their table to have their pictures taken wearing the poncho and sombrero Devon had brought to showcase his Mexican-American heritage.  Shamir, Devon, and Andrea visited the many tables, trying foods that were either tasty, or an acquired taste.

After rigorous debate workshops and tournaments, the students watched the Forum's  incredible championship debate in Sarajevo's parliament building.  The President of Bosnia and Herzegovina presented the debate, which was televised nationwide.

The trip was made possible by the Tom and Molly Bartlett Presidential Fund at Willamette University, a fund created by the Bartletts in 2005 to support special initiatives at the president's discretion.  President Pelton chose this collaborative initiative between IDEA and Willamette Academy for the Fund's first award.

When asked what he might say to sponsors of the trip, Shamir said "...Thanks to their generosity, I had a life-changing experience that truly changed how I perceive the world and everyone in it, which changed the way I hope to influence the people around me. If it hadn't been for [them] I would have most likely never paid any attention to the mind-opening world of debate. I take [their] actions as a true desire to make a positive difference, and if that was their goal, they have succeeded."

Willamette Academy is a pre-college access program that inspires disadvantaged students in the Salem/Keizer school district to graduate from high school and pursue a college education. Willamette Academy is committed to empowering youth who have the desire and potential to advance to higher education, targeting those who are historically under-represented at colleges and universities in the United States. Willamette Academy is located on the Willamette University campus.

The Youth Forum is the signature event of the International Debate Education Association (IDEA), a non-profit organization committed to promoting mutual understanding and democracy globally by supporting open discussion and active citizenship locally.  Since 2000, IDEA has brought debate to more than 70,000 young people from more than 50 countries around the world.  IDEA operates from two independent offices in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Oregon, USA. IDEA has operated within Willamette University since 2005.