WorldOregon Pivots to Virtual Exchange with the Tuna Diplomacy Youth Leadership Program

The TDYLP original exchange on the beach in Newport, Oregon

The onset of COVID-19 in the spring resulted in a pause of live, in-person exchanges for WorldOregon’s International Visitor Program (IVP). However the IVP’s role to create person-to-person interactions, meaningful dialogue, learning opportunities, and connect Oregon to the world has not paused—as was witnessed with the pivot to a virtual conference for the Tuna Diplomacy On-Demand Youth Leadership Program this past June.

In June of 2019, WorldOregon hosted the U.S. Department of State-sponsored On Demand program: Tuna Diplomacy Youth Leadership Program (TDYLP). Sixteen youth and their three Adult Mentors from the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia traveled to Oregon, joining a group of four Oregon youth, and focused on ocean sustainability and leadership. The group of 23 students spent three weeks in Portland and Newport, along with WorldOregon staff, learning about sustainable seafood practices, participating in beach cleanups, and learning about marine science and engineering.

Upon returning home, the youth determined their own Action Projects based on learning objectives and guidance set by the U.S. Embassies in partnership with WorldOregon, and decided to focus on sustainable fisheries and beach cleanups by forming International Teens Upholding Nature Association (iTUNA), that would engage a larger group of youth leaders internationally with ocean sustainability and allow the youth leaders to continue to work together on ocean health.

The TDYLP participants were originally scheduled to reunite in the Republic of Palau, parallel to the internationally renowned Our Ocean conference in August 2020. When COVID-19 hit, the decision was made to move the program to a three-day virtual TDYLP Ocean Health Conference, held in June 2020. The Ocean Health Conference brought together a group of 54 people on Zoom, including TDYLP program participants, speakers, and project leads from the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Embassy, World Learning, and WorldOregon staff. The virtual reunion —which featured Joe Enlet, Consul General of the Federated States of Micronesia and Quintin Bauer, previously with SOLVE and now with the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning & Sustainability as guest speakers— provided an opportunity to reconnect and reflect on the TDYLP program and its impact in the year that followed. Funded by the U.S. Department of State with the leadership of U.S. Embassies Kolonia, Koror, and Marshall Islands, and administered by World Learning, this was a major shift from the original concept for all partners, and in the end, successfully showcased the possibilities of virtual exchange.

Participants during the virtual TDYLP Ocean Health Conference 

A week after the reunion, WorldOregon organized the three-day virtual Ocean Health Conference featuring guest speakers from Oregon and the Pacific Islands. Ocean health experts shared lessons about their careers related to sustainable fishing practices, their personal passions and connections to the ocean, best practices for leadership and organizing for a cause and ideas about how to engage in natural resource management. Each conference day featured themes such as Technology, Sustainable Fisheries, Ocean Health and Youth Taking Action where guest speakers, students, adult mentors and State Department representatives participated in activities and small group discussions in breakout rooms.

TDYLP heard from both experts they met with during their original TDYP exchange in Oregon as well as new experts during the virtual TDYLP Ocean Health Conference

Following the conference, participants reflected on how the exchange empowered the students to focus on ocean sustainability in their home countries to create lasting change. Mayren Wichep, a student from the Federated States of Micronesia, said that a quote from one of the guest speakers from Palau has stuck with her: “How do you expect them to care about what they don't know?” She says the quote serves as a reminder and a motivator to learn more about her island, its history, its people, and way of life and that “I will forever remember these words and strive to gain the knowledge I need to be an islander and to protect my island [as one] who calls it home should.”

In the past year Liyu Huang from Vancouver, WA took on a leadership role in iTUNA, the student group formed as an overarching TDYLP’S Action Project. He shares, “My Tuna Diplomacy experience allowed me to impact and influence others because I went on to serve as the President of the International Teens Upholding Nature Association, or iTUNA. A big part of putting this organization together was developing a SW Washington chapter with six participating school clubs that allowed us to multiply our impact. Beyond that, just hosting regular monthly meetings allowed me to help coordinate and motivate everyone towards completing our projects.”

On the last day of the virtual Ocean Health Conference, the TDYLP participants, together with new youth representatives of their local iTUNA groups, presented virtual videos and slide shows about local and global youth leaders working on ocean health and climate change, Each of the presentations showcased the impact of the TDYLP experience and the youth leaders’ passion for ocean health.

Part of a TDYLP Challenge at the TDYLP Ocean Health Conference

The TDYLP youth leaders closed out the Ocean Health Conference by sharing words and sentiments that reflected how the last year of their life has been impacted by the program. “The world is a lot bigger than I thought it was a year ago,” one TDYLP participant said.

The TDYLP virtual conference proved to be a huge success. Not only were learning objectives met through guest speakers and breakout groups, it allowed the time and space for the TDYLP youth leaders to reflect on all they accomplished, and will continue to accomplish, as a result of their TDYLP experience.

Since this exchange, WorldOregon has hosted two other international visitor virtual exchanges. WorldOregon staff look forward to expanding their virtual programming in 2020 and 2021, paving the way to use technology and new methodologies in exchange programs in the years to come.

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