WAC Conference shines from start to finish

A thought-provoking talk by British journalist Mehdi Hasan, a senior contributor to The Intercept and a presenter for Al-Jazeera, was indicative of the engaging nature of this year’s World Affairs Conference.
WAC regularly draws between 500 and 1,000 high school students and delves into political issues and global concerns. With the oversight of history teacher Gregory MacDonald, Year 12 student Shaan Hooey and his committee of about 30 volunteers worked jointly with a team from Branksome Hall to give this year’s event an update.

“We decided to revamp the format this year, given suggestions from the administration,” says Hooey, “and people acknowledged that they liked the changes and hoped they would continue.”

Hasan’s powerful keynote, “On the Brink of War: What You Need to Know About the U.S. and Iran” on Feb. 3 was the precursor to a full day of plenary sessions and addresses on Feb. 4, as well as a sprint hackathon, attended by 625 Upper School students, as well as students from other area independent schools, and even a group from Ottawa.

The organizing team recruited speakers for the plenary sessions to fit with the 2020 conference’s theme, The World is WAC. Students chose two of four topics: climate change, immigration, satire and society, and education and entrepreneurship. Speakers included a climate change denier, an entrepreneur/UN Youth Ambassador and an editor for the satirical Canadian news website The Beaverton.

“One central theme that emerged was, as students who have been surrounded by technology all of our lives, how we can be in control of our devices, rather than let them control us,” says Hooey.

Before the final speech of the day, the top three teams in the sprint pitched their ideas to the other conference attendees. Their results were judged by a panel of experts and the top teams received prizes. The winning team proposed a pouch to store a cellphone at times when the owner needed to focus, offering crypt-currency incentives to forego using it.

“Everyone was super-excited,” says Hooey. “It was a really positive atmosphere.”

Michelle Romanow, one of the judges on the popular entrepreneur-focused television show Dragons’ Den, delivered the closing speech, detailing her own experiences as an entrepreneur back as far as her high school years.

“She let her passion guide her,” explains Hooey. “What came across was that to be an entrepreneur, you had to be able to deal with failure.”

McDonald, who has overseen the event for five years, and Hooey, who also headed the organizing committee last year, agree that mentorship is key to continuing to make the conference successful in years to come, since the younger students on the committee learn from those who are more experienced.

“It’s good to have continuity of knowledge,” says Hooey. “No one has to start from scratch. It becomes a rite of passage.”
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