Willamette visit teaches students from Bosnia and Herzegovina about democracy

Eighteen high school students and three teachers from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) are visiting Willamette University this month as part of an annual program to explore what it means to be active citizens in a democracy.

Classes on debate and politics, community service and meetings with some of Oregon’s judicial leaders are among the activities the visitors experienced throughout April.

The BiH visitors — who represent three main ethnic and religious groups — are working with local students, community groups and each other, and will return home with newfound leadership and advocacy skills.

“We are teaching them about ‘active citizenship,’ which includes being aware of the important issues facing your community and nation, contributing to an open, civil discussion of those issues, serving the community and practicing peaceful dissent,” says Hilary Jones, executive director of the Willamette global civic engagement program that hosts the visitors.

“By enhancing their understanding of democratic processes and human rights, we can help them build understanding amongst themselves, and empower them to have a voice in shaping the future of their communities.”

Lessons for Willamette Students

The BiH students are not the only one learning from the experience — a class of six Willamette students is also gaining new insights into international affairs.

The students in Politics Associate Professor David Gutterman’s class have been studying both the war in the Balkans and the broader political questions raised by the challenge of how to create a possibility for politics after violence. Separately, Gutterman has also been teaching the visitors about the challenges of democracy in light of the situation in Bosnia.

Since the BiH students arrived, the Willamette undergraduates have been working closely with them in small groups to discuss the issues raised in texts they have been reading and in their full-class discussions.

“My students are gaining a richer knowledge and understanding of the recent history in Bosnia, while developing skills in facilitating difficult and necessary conversations — by working through unease and pushing beyond their comfort zone,” Gutterman says. “It’s a world-expanding experience for the Willamette students in ways similar to the experience of the visiting BiH students.”

Four of the Willamette students are also applying for grants in hopes of traveling to Bosnia this summer to work with the high school students on their community engagement projects back home.

Public Event

The program at Willamette culminates with a Youth Leadership Festival where the BiH students will team up with local high school students from Willamette Academy to participate in a debate, judged by members of the Oregon Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

The event is from 6 to 8 p.m. April 26 in the Paulus Great Hall at the College of Law. It is free and open to the public.

To learn more about the program, and to read blog entries written by the students during their visit, go to