How the 'Spirit of Enniskillen' continues to change young lives
Published: 8 Nov 2012 12:520 comments
16-year-old Collegiate Grammar School pupil, Ashley and 17-year-old Donnchadh from St Michael's College have been active participants in SOE's annual international leadership programme, Explore.
The programme helps young people make their own contribution to society through workshops which challenge them to look at their own outlook on life in comparison to others.
Their enthusiasm for the learning experience has so impressed SOE Director Michael Arlow, that he hand-picked the two young students to be this year's ambassadors at Toronto's week-long 'Quest' conference.
Last year Quest focused on building equitable, inclusive and engaging schools.
This year carefully selected workshop presenters and a Quest 2012 panel will provide interactive sessions to help ensure each participant at Quest can assume responsibility for influencing cultures that are more equitable, more inclusive and more engaging in their respective schools.
Lisbellaw girl, Ashley will be one of the members of the panel, presenting before some 900 other young people.
Excited about the trip she says her experience with SOE so far this year has already been "life changing".
"The programme takes you on a trip out of Northern Ireland," she explains, "My cousin had gone on it before
and I thought it would be great to get away on a holiday! I got to go to France, so yes, I did get away on a holiday, but it was not the holiday I was expecting, it was far more than that!
"The programme really challenges you and your opinions. We had workshops focusing on topics like terrorism, sexuality or religion.
"I really grew up throughout the programme, and particularly when I was away in France.
"We met up with young people from France who are living in places similar to slums. Despite their background though, they seemed to be happy all the time.
"The whole experience has made me look at my perceptions of others while I was growing up.
"It's not that those opinions are forced upon me, it's just what you take for granted when you are young. I hadn't even met a Catholic until I was 11-years-old, so obviously that shaped some of my opinions. And living in such a rural village which didn't have a lot of diversity shaped my opinions too."
Ashley says she found the workshops "overwhelming".
"Being surrounded by people with different opinions to you was overwhelming. I had always thought that my opinion was the right one. But this experience challenged me to look at it from another perspective.
"I had the chance to ask questions about other religious backgrounds, like what Mass is all about. And people asked me about what it's like being from a Protestant background. I was asked about things that I had taken for granted all my life.
"It taught me a lot about myself and it and taught me to have my own confidence."
Before the programme, Ashley and Donnchadh had not known each other either.
"I'm so glad I got involved and got to know him and the others on the programme," says Ashley, "It's been literally life changing and it has brought me so many opportunities that I never even dreamed of."
For Donnchadh, the highlight of the experience so far has been finding out about the trip to Toronto.
"I was asked a couple of weeks ago and I immediately said yes! It was a bit of a shock to be asked. I didn't expect it at all. When I'm out there I will be helping with some of the workshops throughout the week."
Just like Ashley, his expectations of the project were well off the mark.
"I got to go to Sweden," he explains, "Beforehand I'd thought it would be great to get away. But I'm glad it wasn't like your typical holiday, it wouldn't have been the same if it was!
"We were asked to discuss controversial topics like abortion and religion -- issues that young people aren't normally given a voice on.
"When I was in Sweden we stayed in a youth hostel and spent time with young people from there.
"The whole experience has really change me -- I'm more interested in things that are going on around me, I'm able to communicate more effectively and I appreciate that other people have different opinions to myself," he adds.
Looking ahead to the next stage of their experience in Toronto, Ashley says she is nervous but excited about her role as a member of the panel.
"I'm on the panel with five other Canadians so I will stick out like a sore thumb," she jokes, "I really don't know what to expect from the trip though. I have learned from previous experience that your expectations are never usually correct! I was expecting something completely different to the experience I have already had through SOE, and I'm glad of that."