Student conference grows beyond walls of school

When Peter Toth gave his Grade 11 Global Connect students their single assignment for the year back in September, he had no idea where it would lead them. Neither did his students.

The Dundas Valley Secondary School students did know they wanted to do a conference on the issue of human rights and Toth, who had presented the class with three possible options to pursue, acted as a guide and facilitator. The rest was up to them. “The students are the centre, not me,” he says.

The original vision the class had was for a conference within the walls of Dundas Valley — possibly in the library or the gym. “It just got bigger, and bigger and bigger,” says Toth.

The result was the Change the Way conference held at Carmen’s Banquet Centre on Thursday. The conference, designed around the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals — with a focus on human rights — featured activities, presentations and guest speakers. It was organized and run by Toth’s class with the help of additional volunteers from a few area high schools.

Toth’s students did all the legwork for the conference, from calling and securing the venue and arranging the speakers and presenters, to raising $10,000 through corporate sponsorship to cover costs. Each student was responsible for a specific part of the conference. Students also helped co-ordinate video links with speakers from Spain, Colombia, Singapore and Mexico.

Close to 600 elementary, secondary and post-secondary students from mostly Hamilton-area schools attended the conference, as well as some from Toronto, London and Brantford.

It was a mammoth task organizing such an event in just four months. Toth’s students spent lunch hours, weekends and any other spare time preparing for the conference.

Despite the difficulties encountered, students see the obvious benefits of the experience. “This past week has been one of the most stressful of my life,” says student Emily Cox, 16, as she reflects on the final stages of preparing for the conference. But she is quick to ad, “it has 100 per cent helped me grow as a person.”

Max Klapman, 16, also sees the rewards of his participation in the class. “It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. We’re trying to show everybody that they can make a difference,” he says. Klapman also found that the class changed his goals for the future. Still not set on a particular profession, Klapman now knows how he wants to apply himself. “I want to make a difference, regardless of where I go,” he says.