Go Against the Current: ISLC Recap, Part 2

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Editor’s note: Every year, Operation Smile Student Programs hosts hundreds of student volunteers from more than a dozen countries at the International Student Leadership Conference, an empowering week for high school students combining cause and camaraderie. This story is the second of a three-part series recapping the conference, which took place in July 2018 at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Everyone Has a Story

Students from around the world display the flags of their home countries during the 27th annual International Student Leadership Conference. Photo: Kristy Walker.
Students from around the world display the flags of their home countries during the 27th annual International Student Leadership Conference. Photo: Kristy Walker.

Operation Smile’s International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) isn’t just a time to learn from motivational speakers – it's a time to learn from each other.  

When hundreds of young Operation Smile volunteers, spanning 19 different countries, gathered together on one campus, the storytelling exchange from their diverse perspectives was powerful.

“Through ISLC, I’ve met people from all around the world and learned each person you meet has a unique, individual story, whether they’re from your area or if it’s from someone across the globe,” said Katie Kerrigan of Virginia Beach, Virginia, U.S., who attends Ocean Lakes High School. 

“Data can tell us a lot about the world, but poring over stats won’t tell the full story,” said Hugh Chang, director of strategy, planning and management for global development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Behind all the facts and figures are people and relationships.”

To have a more complete understanding of how the world is changing — where it’s changing, how fast it’s changing and in what metrics — you have to learn the reasons why people are making that change in the first place. You have to hear their stories and gather qualitative evidence to make sense of the quantitative. 

“It’s that ability to learn from all perspectives and to understand the drive it takes to make it work,” Chang told the ISLC audience. “And not to just make it work – but make it wonderful.”

“Every person you meet has a unique trait that helps them contribute to a team,” said Sophia Stryjewski of Avon Grove in Pennsylvania, U.S. “Diversity is crucial within a team to get the best ideas and innovation because each person brings a new perspective.” 

“During ISLC, I have met many new people and made new friends from different places,” said Ximena Gonzalez-Revilla of Panamá City, Panamá. “I learned important facts of how to be a leader, and it also made me more interested in creating smiles.”

Own Your Story

YouTube stars Veronica and Vanessa Merrell — also known as the Merrell Twins — deliver their speech during the 27th annual International Student Leadership Conference. Photo: Kristy Walker.
YouTube stars Veronica and Vanessa Merrell — also known as the Merrell Twins — deliver their speech during the 27th annual International Student Leadership Conference. Photo: Kristy Walker.

Find your voice, and speak out.

This was the overarching message students heard from self-made YouTube stars Veronica and Vanessa Merrell — also known as the Merrell Twins — and teenage activist Skyler Griswold, who recently started her own nonprofit. 

The Merrell Twins shared their story, touching on the topics of “Rejection is protection” and “There’s no change in comfort and no comfort in change.” But their main focus was to have the crowd understand that each person has a unique voice. The key is finding it, embracing it and honing it. 

Having taken part in two Operation Smile medical missions, Skyler channeled her experience with helping children born with cleft conditions into successful fundraising and awareness efforts.

“With finding your voice comes the responsibility of using it to effect change,” Skyler said.

She encouraged the audience to act now because, as students, they have the power and obligation to make a difference in the world today.

Teenage activist and Operation Smile student volunteer Skyler Griswold speaks to the crowd at the 27th annual International Student Leadership Conference. Photo: Kristy Walker.
Teenage activist and Operation Smile student volunteer Skyler Griswold speaks to the crowd at the 27th annual International Student Leadership Conference. Photo: Kristy Walker.

At the conference, longtime Operation Smile student volunteer Brie Stoughton of Bolivia did exactly that when she shared the influential and personal story of her struggle with an eating disorder.

“It was important to me to spread awareness and bring attention to this issue,” Brie said after the speech. “I feel like not many people speak about eating disorders, and they are more common than we think they are.” 

Brie shared that it was Operation Smile Student Programs who played a major role in her recovery.

This past January, Brie attended the Student Programs’ Latinoamerica En Accion leadership conference in the Dominican Republic. After sharing her story with the staff, she felt safe and supported. 

“Despite being scared to expose myself to judgment and critiques, I knew that if I shared my story with my Operation Smile family first, I would be in a safe environment where people would accept me for who I was,” Brie said. 

Darlene Sam of Ghana was moved by Brie’s bravery.  

“Brie was inspiring, not only because of the courage she had to go on stage and speak to a crowd of so many people, but because of the fact that she was able to talk about real things — things that we teenagers understand and face in our everyday lives,” Darlene said. 

“She brought us to the realization that it’s okay to share your story and be heard by others because, at the end of the day, we are all here to support each other,” she said. “At that moment, I really understood how much I appreciate and love this Operation Smile family.”

Operation Smile student volunteer Brie Stoughton of Bolivia shares her personal story with her peers at the 27th annual International Student Leadership Conference. Photo: Kristy Walker.