COLUMBIA — A video conference bridged almost 1,000 miles between the White House and a Rock Bridge High School classroom, where about 100 students had the chance Monday to stand up and ask Laura Bush a question about AIDS in Africa.
The students have all taken a contemporary issues class taught by social studies teacher Matt Cone. They have all researched the AIDS pandemic. They have all participated in fundraisers to help curb its spread. And on Monday, clad in T-shirts from the ONE Campaign to end poverty, they all created a sea of black and white in support for one of many global issues they have discussed.
The talk with Bush gave the students a chance to ask questions of someone who has seen the effects of AIDS in Africa and has the ability to influence a change.
Will Schauwecker, 18, got straight to the point when he asked why Bush was speaking to them.
“I’m proud that people your age around the U.S. are helping,” Bush said. She continued by saying that because of technological advances, our world has become smaller and people can’t ignore problems happening across the globe.
Cone, who organized the video conference, had a different answer to Schauwecker’s question.
“The only reason she ever spoke to us is crystal clear: It’s because of you (the students),” Cone said.
Sarah Slaughter, 17, asked Bush what books and films students should check out if they’re interested in disease or poverty.
Bush responded with “My Old Country” and “And the Band Played On.” Both books, written in the 1980s, are about the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. Bush also joked about getting a plug in for her daughter, Jenna Bush, and mentioned her book “Ana’s Story.” Bush said the book is targeted toward a young audience.
“I’ve heard of ‘And the Band Played On,’ but it was nice to hear of a new book,” Slaughter said in reference to “My Old Country.” “I wrote (the title) down, and, of course, I’m going to check it out because the first lady recommended a book to me. It’s pretty cool.”
Another question concerned the root of the spread of disease in Africa.
“It’s a lack of infrastructure, lack of health infrastructure, lack of infrastructure for water treatment,” Bush said. She offered Liberia as an example of countries that are beginning to develop the framework needed to stop the spread of disease.
She also said it was difficult both to get medicine to AIDS patients and to follow up with those already on medication.
The students expressed an appreciation for Cone’s dedication to the class and for making the talk with Bush possible.
“It’s such a privilege,” said Jon Morgan, 17, referring to the chance to get to talk with Bush. “Outside of class and outside of Mr. Cone, this would never happen.”
Cone said every year he sends out packets to activists, celebrities and politicians. These packets include letters from students urging recipients to talk to the class and newspaper articles about what the students have been doing.
They also include letters about a former speaker, Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, a social justice and international health organization. Cone said Farmer’s talk turned the students’ lives around.
“(Farmer) has a tremendous impact,” Cone said. “In essence, he deserves all the credit. Once we talked to him, a lot of people wanted to talk to us.”
Aside from Farmer, previous speakers include former Secretary of State Colin Powell, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and co-founder of Partners in Health Ophelia Dahl.
The class is not merely academic; Cone said one of his goals is encouraging students to be active in impacting global issues.
“It’s about modeling (Farmer’s) approach of busting your butt to help the poor,” Cone said.
Cone said this approach means writing letters to politicians and talking with your neighbors about the world.
It also means the occasional 21-mile walk. On Dec. 21, students walked 21 miles in just under 10 hours. Each participant gathered $21 from 21 sponsors. The money, $5,700, was donated to YouthAIDS, an education and prevention program that uses celebrities and pop culture to inspire young people to combat AIDS.
Students also had the opportunity to call Kate Roberts, the founder of YouthAIDS. The call’s signal went out, but not before Schauwecker told Roberts about next year’s fundraising goal: $20,000 for YouthAIDS.
Slaughter said the class has greatly affected her life. She said that she now wants to be a social worker in another country and that the class has helped her learn the specifics of important world problems.
“It’s inspired me to do more than talk, but to actually do things,” Slaughter said.