Caroline Gao wants to change the world.
And the West Albany High School sophomore is already on her way after conceptualizing and instituting The World in Us, an initiative that aims to broaden cultural awareness and understanding while eliminating ignorance through a youth-led education program.
“The idea stemmed from my own experience growing up in Albany,” Gao said during a break in her classes on Tuesday. “I got culturally ignorant comments from peers as young as elementary school that really impacted me. I realized it wasn’t deeply rooted in racism, it was ignorance and lack of exposure to cultures like mine and other cultures around the world.”
Last summer, Gao, who is Chinese-American launched the initiative after spending time researching existing curriculum, creating her own and having test groups provide her feedback. The result was 45-minute lessons that called out stereotypes while calling students in to learn more about different cultures.
“We talk about the stereotypes people face in the cultures we’re representing and about exclusionary language,” Gao said. “We also cover fun things to make them excited about learning about the culture like food and pop culture.”
So far, Gao and her six teen teammates from around the community (with more inquiries from overseas) have held a virtual winter break camp for 34 students around the country and given lessons to North Albany Elementary School classes.
Spencer Madsen, a sophomore at West, is one of Gao's teammates and said he became involved in the program to help.
"Now, more than ever it's important to be compassionate to other people and be knowledgeable," he said. "With everything that's happening at the Capitol, it's good for people to know what's going on in the world and it's important to be kind to everyone."
The group hopes to expand the program once in-person learning begins to other districts and to do that, The World in Us has already secured funding through a grant from the federal government for educational and cultural affairs as well as $3,000 from the University of Iowa. That money, Gao said, will go towards supplies for crafts and food from the represented cultures when classes can be taught in person.
The group also plans on holding writing contests for students and may use some of the money for prizes.
“Much of my motivation for founding The World in Us stemmed from the cultural ignorance I personally faced growing up Asian-American in Albany,” Goa said. “Amidst 2020's global and local reckoning with racism, I felt cross-cultural understanding, unity and education was more critical than ever. Getting kids excited about global citizenship through The World in Us and contributing however I can toward a more culturally accepting future has been incredibly fulfilling for me, and I hope our story could help lift the community's spirits too.”
She has already seen the fruit of her labors. After every class, students answer questions about what they learned.
“One student said they learned the difference between Japan and China,” Gao said. “That’s a question I used to get all the time but now, because of this initiative, maybe another elementary school (student) won’t have to answer that again (in the future).”