By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
For years, Kristin Hayden lived abroad in several countries.
She returned at age 30 and soon became frustrated with the United States’ public education system and foreign policy, and the lack of understanding in Americans concerning international issues — particularly after September 11, 2001.
Eventually, Hayden decided to stop complaining and took action.
In 2002, she founded One World Now!, a Seattle-based global leadership program that combines language classes, leadership workshops, and study abroad opportunities for underserved youth in Seattle Public Schools.
“Our mission is to prepare the next generation of global leaders,” Hayden said. “To [be a global leader], you have to have the language skills, a belief in yourself, and have a global perspective.”
Students meet after school for two hours a day and three days a week — two days for language classes and one day for leadership workshops. OWN offers language classes in Mandarin and Arabic, two important languages not typically offered in public schools. Nationally, less than one percent of students in public schools take Arabic and less than three percent take Mandarin.
Seventeen-year-old David Wong heard about OWN from a friend and has been in the program for two years.
The junior from Garfield High School, who is taking Mandarin classes, praised OWN because students not only learn important languages, but they also discuss global issues and have the opportunity to gain firsthand experience through study abroad programs.
“(OWN) opened my eyes and made me think about my role in the world,” he said.
Wong was born in Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese at home with his family. He is taking Mandarin because he thought it would be useful in a world where everything, including the job market, is becoming more global and competitive.
Wong put his new language skills to the test this past summer when he traveled to China and visited several Chinese cities through China Prep, an organization that offers educational travel trips for high school students.
Wong had been to China previously with his family, but he especially enjoyed his summer experience because he traveled to locations he hadn’t been to before. He was able to explore more areas and interact with the locals. His group visited a Chinese household and the countryside, which taught Wong firsthand about family dynamics and life in rural China.
“I think One World Now! is great,” Wong said. “I’ve gotten so much out of it.”
Hayden said that when they began in 2002, OWN was only offered in one school with 12 students enrolled.
Now, OWN is in eight high schools with about 150 students enrolled per year. If students from other schools wish to enroll, Hayden and her staff help the students figure out public transportation to the nearest OWN school.
Historically, the program was only offered to high school students, but this year, OWN also began working in middle schools.
While it has been great to see the program grow to its current size, Hayden has no plans to stop until OWN is a national program.
“Our vision is quite big,” she said.
One way in which the program has grown is through word of mouth among students.
Like Wong, Victoria Duffy, 16, heard about OWN from a friend. However, unlike Wong, she only took one year of Mandarin classes. The junior from Garfield has remained in the program as an ambassador, as second-year participants are called, and helps with the weekly leadership workshops. She also worked at the OWN office this past summer and has been doing her part in spreading the word.
“I’d recommend (OWN) to everybody,” she said. “This is like my life.”
Duffy, who speaks Vietnamese at home, is currently in the process of applying to and funding for a study abroad program in Indonesia this summer. The program is through Where There Be Dragons, another organization that provides educational trips abroad for students.
Hayden said the study abroad trips are usually to China or other Asian countries or to the Middle East, so students can utilize their language skills. OWN works with third-party providers like China Prep and Where There Be Dragons to find safe places for students to travel.
About 90 percent of students in OWN are students of color, and 65 to 70 percent come from low-income households, Hayden said.
Because of this, she said, the third-party providers offer students in OWN discounted rates for their programs. OWN raises money to help pay for the difference, and students’ families pay only a fraction of the total cost.
“We are always trying to find ways to form partnerships to make it affordable for our youth to go abroad,” Hayden said.
The after-school portion of OWN is free.
After eight years, Hayden still feels lucky to do what she does. Seeing students gain and improve their language skills and learn tolerance gives her hope for future generations. “I just feel like I have the best job in the world,” she said. “These kids inspire me every day.” ♦
Samantha Pak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.