Freshman Scholar Has a Seat at World Economic Forum

Posted: February 22, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Ryann Doyle

Whitney Burton
Whitney Burton
Photo Courtesy of Whitney Burton

Imagine being among a crowd of influential world leaders and listening to the likes of Bono and Al Gore discuss global problems while offering solutions to alleviate them. Even better, imagine sharing your own ideas with them.

Whitney Burton, freshman global affairs major and university scholar at Mason, got to do just that. Burton landed the opportunity when she won a seat at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month.

Her experience began when she was chosen to join 59 young scholars from 40 different countries at the Road to Davos Forum in Greenwich, England, early this year. The students at the forum worked with facilitators who taught them how to be more effective activists by enhancing their communication skills.

Each participant created a three-minute speech about their challenge for world leaders and for each other, and how they would represent the group if chosen to go to Davos. As a group, they voted on who would represent the 60 Greenwich participants. Burton was selected as one of the six—and the only American—to go.

Burton’s speech that sent her to Davos was on eradicating poverty through economic programs such as microfinance, a system of providing financial services to the poor. She also talked about the importance of inspiring others to become activists and make a difference in their community.

In the course of the forum, Burton got to know the other students and learned about issues that are unique to other parts of the world.

“It was really cool learning about issues from not just a Western point of view, but through the people it is actually affecting and people who see firsthand how these problems are affecting people.”

Immediately following the Greenwich meeting, Burton and her group traveled to Davos. The five other students were from Argentina, China, Scotland, South Africa and Sri Lanka. Representing the 16-to-19 age group, they were the youngest presenters ever to speak at the annual World Economic Forum.

“I was pretty much running on pure adrenaline the whole time because I didn’t want to miss a second of it,” says Burton. “I will probably never again get the opportunity to meet with people from so many countries and be able to say, ‘So what do you think about homosexuality and gay rights, et cetera.’”

In between preparing for their panel and taking in the excitement of the forum, Burton met Emma Thompson, an actress and human rights activist who works against human trafficking; and Sadako Ogata, former United Nations high commissioner for refugees, who were on their panel.

Burton also sat in on a panel discussion with Al Gore and Bono. She says she thought this was interesting because Gore speaks more about environmentalism and climate change and Bono speaks more about poverty, and there has been a misconception of a fight between the two.

“Sometimes in the activist world, people are fighting over other people’s attention,” says Burton. “So they talked about bridging the two causes because both poverty and climate affect each other and can change the world together in so many ways.”

When it came time for the Young Leaders forum, Burton and her group members introduced themselves and talked about their previous activism and what they wanted for the world. The panel then opened up to a question and answer session where audience members asked about issues such as how parents can get their kids interested in activism.

Burton says the most rewarding part of the experience was visiting a local Davos high school and talking to the students about how they can get involved in activism. She also enjoyed meeting so many different people with different points of view.

“I went in there knowing I cannot change the world by being here. But hopefully one thing I say will stick in someone’s mind, or come up in a year or two, and maybe it will make a difference one day because of that. If I do something today and start a little spark, maybe one day it will catch fire,” says Burton.

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