This article first appeared in the Summer 2018 Harker Magazine
In June 2007, eight Harker students met with fellow students and world leaders in Wismar, Germany, to talk about pressing global issues, and the trip changed their lives. The Harker group was chosen from a field of 63 teams to represent the United States at the J8 (Junior 8) parallel summit. The team met with then-President George W. Bush and the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom at the annual G8 Summit (now the G7 Summit, as Russia no longer participates).
The Aquilones, as they called themselves, were Sudha Gollapudi ’08, Kritika Kailash ’08, David Kastelman ’09, Aarathi Minisandram ’08, Rohit Nalamasu ’08, Kavitha Narra ’08, Kelly O’Reilly ’08 and Rachel Peterson ’08. They were all members of Harker’s Model UN and Amnesty International chapters.
While in Germany, they worked alongside youth teams from the other represented countries and a special contingent of 10 youths from emerging economies and developing nations to write a declaration tackling economic prospects for Africa, HIV/AIDS, new challenges for the global economy and climate change, and energy efficiency. Now, 10 years after leaving Harker, those alumni look back at that wonderful experience.
“I continued to stay politically aware all through college,” said Sudha Gollapudi, “probably much more than I would have if I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to participate in the J8 Summit. I have definitely been a lot more politically aware and active since the trip. I follow the news very closely and try to contact local representatives regarding issues that are important to me.”
She also thinks about the trip frequently. “I see updates from the people I’ve added on social media … and it’s been really interesting to see how their lives have progressed over the last 10 years.” What Gollapudi especially remembers about the trip were the passion and ideas of the other participants.
“Everyone was so excited to contribute their thoughts and ideas to help make the world a better place. It was a wonderful and eye-opening experience for me to meet so many people from around the world who cared about the planet as much as I did. It made me feel a lot more connected to the rest of the world.”
The trip launched Kritika Kailash on a different path than she otherwise would have chosen. “The whole J8 experience really pushed me toward the social sector and public policy, and I got to explore these in my classes and activities in college,” she said. “I met many memorable young people fighting for social justice in their countries, and hearing their experiences was really humbling. I’m still friends on Facebook with many of them, and it’s great to see their success.”
Kailash said she thinks about the trip frequently and has stayed interested in economics and politics because of the trip. “We were so excited and thrilled to be so near to the G8 summit. We got to meet Laura Bush, and Kavitha sat with George Bush in a meeting, which was really exciting.” After college, Kailash worked in India for a year with a nonprofit that provided services to urban slums. She is currently at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy completing a Master of Public Policy.
Rachel Peterson noted she has some vibrant memories of the trip. “After the meetings, we had the opportunity to socialize with our fellow participants from across the world,” she said.
“Between the serious conversations and dance parties, I remember being incredibly impressed with their maturity and humor. My second memory was watching Kavitha Narra present to the G8. I remember being incredibly nervous before her presentation. My fears were unnecessary, as she was fantastic.
“I think about the trip when I am reminiscing about high school. It was one of the highlights of my time at Harker. One of my most important, though clichéd takeaways, is that you should take risks as you never know which opportunities will pan out.”
Peterson also delved into public service following her J8 experience. “During college, I interned with Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, focusing on public policy. I graduated Berkeley with a double major in economics and history. After spending a few years at an economic consulting firm, now work for Square in San Francisco.”
“The trip definitely deepened my interest in development economics,” said David Kastelman, “a topic I took some time to study in more depth in college. While at college, I decided to look more domestically than internationally for work. I was quite interested in combining an interest in economics and an interest in public service. My first job out of college was at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal government’s newest federal agency, which focuses on making sure consumer financial products – things like student loans and mortgages – have sensible regulation. To this day, I definitely still have an interest in social impact, though at the moment, I’m investigating how that might occur through the efficiency and scale that occurs at a technology company.” Kastelman is a product analyst for DoorDash.
Kastelman noted he had many great memories from the trip, but “if I had to pick a single memory, it would probably be the chance to work on a written communiqué, the Wismar Declaration, with several other J8 members. It is a written summary of the thoughts of 74 youths, from 18 different countries, on some of the things the J8 could do to ensure more justice in the world. I remember being really pleased with how the document came together. Kavitha and other students had chance to share that written document with the assembled heads of state – and I remember thinking that was really cool.”
One of Aarathi Minisandram’s key memories of the trip “was hearing from Ishmael Beah, author of ‘A Long Way Gone’ and former child soldier from Sierra Leone,” she said. “His speech to us about how youth can change the world was incredibly inspirational.
“I was humbled especially by the individual youth representatives from Third World countries around the globe. My main takeaway from the trip was the importance of education and youth empowerment, so I aimed to get the best education I could and give back to those who grew up less privileged than I.
“The trip heavily influenced my decision to join Teach For America after graduating college. I taught high school math in a New York City public school for two years before pursuing my ultimate career path. In those two years, I worked with incredible students whose backgrounds were vastly different from my own with a goal of instilling my passion for education and youth empowerment onto them.
“One of my AP Calculus students went on to college and pursued a degree in nursing to help improve the health care system. J8 inspired me to continue working with youth throughout my life, and I am very grateful to have had the means and opportunity to participate in the summit,” Minisandram said.
Rohit Nalamasu is in his first year of residency on his path to becoming a doctor. His strongest memory of J8 is of “sharing life on a boat [the group was housed on a Polish Navy vessel!] and meeting people from all different backgrounds and cultures,” he said.
“It was fascinating interacting with people who thought differently from ourselves, and truly interacting with them within the framework and close quarters that J8 provided allowed me to grow as a person and consider different trains of thought to the issues we came to solve.”
The trip “absolutely” had an impact on Nalamasu during his college years. “Going on that trip and meeting youth from Tanzania and India, as well as the G8 countries, made me realize how fortunate we are here. Specifically a project I worked closely on was educating myself on the AIDS epidemic in Africa. I was shocked to find the simple things, like accessible condoms that we have here, were missing in large parts of Africa. It … made me realize how different health care here is from there.
“This led me to bioengineering as an undergrad major, to try to create cost-effective health care options for the Third World. In turn, I pursued medicine … in an effort to bring easy-to-create, cost-effective prosthetics and rehab care to the Third World. I’m hoping to get involved in some 3-D printing prosthetics projects coming up!”
He thinks of the trip all the time, he said. “The friendships I made on that trip were lifelong. Currently, one of the other members and I live together while they are in medical school and I am a resident nearby. I think that trip was a once-in-a lifetime experience, and I thank my lucky stars I was blessed to go; I don’t think I would be who I am today without it.”
Kelly O’Reilly’s life choices also were affected by her J8 experience. “After J8, I was really interested in the work UNICEF was doing,” she said, “so I got an internship with UNICEF my freshman year of college at Columbia. That was probably the most direct effect of J8 on my college experience. I do think that the experience helped me practice skills that became useful later. We learned to have productive discussions about difficult topics, present ideas clearly, etc.
“The most memorable part of the trip for me was the people,” she continued. “I know we had sessions on current events and issues, but I remember less the details of what we discussed and more the people we had these discussions with. It was really an incredible opportunity to meet and interact with students from all around the world.
“I’m still friends with my fellow teammates, and I remain in touch with some of the people we met. Looking back, I don’t think it hit me until later what a unique opportunity it really was – although I do remember we were in shock when we [were selected to attend]!”
O’Reilly recently completed a Ph.D. in history at Vanderbilt University on the history of community health centers during the War on Poverty, and is now in her first year at Yale Law School.
Kavitha Narra, now in clinical rotations in her third year of medical school, was profoundly influenced by her participation in the summit. “I always found my heart in community work, but since J8 I have been even more invigorated to pursue policy change in my service. In the past few years of medical school, this has taken the shape of expanding our Pomona Community Health Action Team services in my term as [its] president to include free sports physicals to our Pomona Unified School District’s students, many of whom are undocumented community members and have limited access to other health services.”
Narra noted a turning point in her life was caring for a ninth grade boy with cerebral palsy. “In our time together, he would teach me to treat him as Joe, the charmer and social butterfly who loved to chat up the ladies, rather than as a young man living with cerebral palsy,” she said.
“I began to understand his personal strength and capacity to endure as we worked through his pain together, as partners. Through his courage and understanding, Joe sparked my earliest interest in direct patient care.
“With each patient I see, I am reminded that though I am not currently active in international policy change, the strength of our personal connections in life – in this case listening to my patient’s story and learning how to safeguard his or her health – is a meaningful way to create impactful change in the lives of those around me. Health policy may find its way into my life in the future, but for now I am enjoying learning about the human body and translating that into a strong patient-physician bond.
“I was incredibly fortunate to be blessed with the experience of our J8/G8 Summit, with each moment that led up to it and each one that followed,” she said. “I gained a new strength and confidence in our ability to impact change by first creating sincere connections and true friendships with those across our world. Truly, those are the relationships that have inspired my passions in life.”
Editor’s note: You can find the text of the 2007 Wismar Declaration here: https://www.unicef.org/media/files/J8.pdf