IN PERSON: Real education found on world stage
(London Free Press — June 27, 2011)
Two years ago, at 16, he was a delegate chosen to shake hands with Stephen Harper, President Barack Obama and President Nicolas Sarkozy at a G8 summit in Italy.
In January, he was the youngest Londoner named an international observer in the landmark Sudanese referendum.
Now 18 and graduating from Saunders secondary school, Nigel Wodrich has a message for the city’s youth.
“Travel, travel, travel. Go on exchanges,” the budding social activist tells young people, saying foreign exchanges are the best way to fight narrow minds.
Dubbed a “Renaissance man” by teachers, Wodrich was handpicked by Glen Pearson and Jane Roy of the London-based Canadian Aid for South Sudan to travel to help rebuild a rural community near Aweil, bordering South Darfur.
Since his return, after observing the “historical moment” of the Sudanese referendum that split Africa’s largest country in two, Wodrich said he’s inspired to talk about Sudan and the Canadian stereotypes that hindered him on the trip.
“We tend to think of Canada as being more economically developed than nations like Sudan, but we’re not as spiritually developed or community-driven as the Sudanese,” he said.
He remembers going into a local market with his 20-year-old translator, James, who leaned in to hold his hand.
“I automatically, almost reflexively, balked,” Wodrich said, his voice tinged with regret.
But it’s a Sudanese custom to hold hands with a new friend.
“I felt really bad. My Canadian upbringing and stereotypes got in the way of a genuine offering of friendship.”
When Wodrich returned to London, he began creating presentations for youth and leadership groups and classrooms, sharing his Sudanese tales and hoping to chip away at the stereotypes he believes many Canadians have.
“I had terrible feelings of guilt when I returned — I gained more from my experiences in Sudan than I had contributed. The only thing left for me to do was share my journey and the lessons I learned.”
Wodrich’s reason to give presentations is two-fold: to make good on a promise he made to the Sudanese that he would tell their stories to Canadians, and a more “selfish reason” — reliving the experiences he treasures.
Wodrich modifies his presentation for each audience, with health-focused lectures to science classes, referendum discussion for civic classes and climate-related seminars for geography students.
He said his passion for community involvement can be traced back to a conversation he had with Harper at the Italian G8 summit.
Wodrich’s hesitation dissolved when he realized his six-foot-tall frame towered over the other politicians.
“I asked (Harper) a question in French to keep him on his toes,” he said. After a short pause and chuckle, Wodrich added, “I was not satisfied with his answer.”
That trip provoked his change of heart from a career in politics to one of social activism.
“Politicians have to be accountable to an entire nation. At the end of the day, I want to be able to be accountable to myself.”
Wodrich will begin a four-year international economics and development program at the University of Ottawa this fall. He hopes the degree — fully paid by scholarships — will help him in his endeavours travelling Africa, South America and Asia.