The 28th International Youth Forum was a week-long program that conglomerated individuals from various backgrounds, nationalities, and ideas to address the very relevant issue of strengthening regional cooperation by youth exchange.
The forum, which was organized in multifaceted South Korea, has proved to be one of the most valuable experiences of my life. There were many reasons why this experience was more than any ordinary youth exchange or cultural exchange program. I can, however, conclude that through this time, the learnings I have received and the friends I have gained will be lifelong and their role pivotal in my journey towards becoming an effective citizen, leader, and changemaker.
Our forum’s driving agenda was to address the issue of “strengthening regional cooperation by youth exchange” and for the purpose of addressing it holistically, we were divided into 4 subcommittees that would propose solutions by the means of either sport, culture and art, volunteerism or internet. I had opted to be a part of the sports committee.
We arrived in Seoul on 23rd August, at the Incheon airport and were greeted by Korean participants of the youth forum who had responsibly coordinated timings beforehand to pick us up in groups. Many of us participants found one another at the airport itself, hence doing the first round of introductions which went something like “where are you from?” right after “your name is?” Not having to concern ourselves with the details of making it to our first destination and home in Seoul, the international youth centre, we began to absorb very quickly the city all around us, experiencing our first journey in the Seoul subway, the people and their mannerisms, the fast pace.
We got off at Banghwa station after an hour-long ride and from there, the International Youth Centre was walking distance. The first event was our interactive session with children 6-8 years of age that attended school at the youth centre. It was a delightful interaction, as always is, with kids anywhere in the world. The teachers had them prepare a song, which we later sang together. They said goodbye to us, leaving us with wonderful memories and a beautiful fan that they had created right in front of us.
Later that day we had our first event, a welcome dinner, hosted by the National Centre for Youth Opportunities in Korea (NCYOK) and the Ministry of Gender Equality where the forum was officially declared open. This was followed by an icebreaker session to get to know all the other participants a little better. All the unfamiliarity, however, was already subsiding and friendships already forming. The next day, we had a keynote lecture by an exceptional professor who had come to be with us all the way from Singapore. We then transferred to Muju, South Korea’s skiing and resort destination for the winter, where we had the great opportunity of being amidst hills, fresh air, minimal commercialization in the centre of which was the serene Taekwondowon, our home and workplace for next 4 days. It is here where the debate, discussion, and youth declaration would take shape. No prize for guessing, we also got to attend a taekwondo lesson to have the experience of a true Korean tradition.
On day 1, we had a crisis panel session, where each committee was asked to choose a crisis they wished to address with regard to the topic at hand, and after discussion and debate, propose a possible solution – the first step, towards dealing with that crisis. This was a good exercise for us to translate our problems and criticisms into a concrete and viable plan of action.
On days 2-3, we worked towards the agenda of the forum that was to prepare the youth declaration that would be our call to action at the end of this week-long program. There were many iterations, discussions and debates on the topic. Committees were asked to further divide into 2 subcommittees, each of which would then come up with a set of clauses. They were then merged with the other subcommittees. This was done so as to conduct more intimate discussion, in order to ensure maximum contribution of participants.
After submitting an initial draft, all the clauses that were submitted by the 4 committees were read out loud, discussed thoroughly, opened for questions and criticisms. Incorporating feedback and making necessary amendments, each clause was voted on. In spectacular fashion, each clause that was submitted was voted to be put on the youth declaration for the 28th International Youth Forum. This wound up the “work” segment at our forum.
The next 2 days were our time for sightseeing, absorbing the culture of thriving Korea, spending time with the wonderful people we had met just a few days ago. So we all set out, possessing the curiosity of little children thrown into an unfamiliar, but welcoming land. Our first stop was Jeonju, the famous village that contains over 800 Korean traditional houses called ‘Hanok’. The village is famous among Koreans and tourists because of its traditional buildings that strongly contrast with the modern city around it. A few of us even tried out the traditional Korean dress, fitting right in.
In Seoul we were free to choose where to visit and I opted to see the city hall area where we visited the King Sejong monument, the creator of the Korean language. We then walked down then to the secret gardens and palace. Later, we visited the shopping district Myeong-dong after lunch, in Insadong neighbourhood. From there, we made it back for the closing ceremony and dinner, which was followed by a friendship night of dancing and games.
Apart from the scheduled activities, my takeaways from the trip were many. I had the privilege of being amongst people who, without any hesitation, I regard as some of the smartest bunch of people I have ever had the privilege to meet. Our debates and discussions sometimes heated up and at other times, invited uncontrollable laughter. Most of all, the diversity of opinion offered gratifying perspectives on things I had never considered, sides of arguments I had never heard and points of views I had never been exposed to.
I like to think that the forum was simply a tool for us to build relationships and a lifelong network of people with a similar drive of wanting to make a difference in the world. What made it very special is that no one was here by obligation or requirement. Every participant was there by choice, completely self-inspired, and that made the interaction far more worthwhile, in many respects. It was a gathering of people who all offered perspective, insight and interest into things that young people may at times ignore, or disregard as “not our problem”. But as I have come to learn, “if it concerns the world, it concerns us”.
My biggest takeaway however, from this one week program, was definitely the conversations that took place beyond scheduled hours. Whether it be political issues or existentialism, religion or culture, agriculture or meditation; we shared and learned things that we didn’t expect to, but did because that is what happens when you put such diversity together in one room. I am grateful for the network of friends I have built around the world and the memories I take back from my time in the wonderful country of South Korea, the success of which is a remarkable story of how perseverance, hard-work and efficiency can bring prosperity and progress to anyone seeking it.