History of the World Affairs Seminar

Sixty years ago, the late Blaine Groves, a Martinsburg physician concerned about the lack of international awareness among high school students in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, came up with a plan to help enrich local high school social science programs.

A Need for Increased Awareness

Dr. Blaine Grove, a long-time member of the Martinsburg Rotary Club, proposed that his club develop an international relations seminar to take advantage of the proximity of foreign embassies in Washington D.C. and to encourage their willingness—even, at times, eagerness—to find a public forum in which to present their countries’ political, cultural and economic concerns. As a first step, he approached the administration of Shepherd College, and, finding lively support, soon secured the promise of the college to provide facilities and assistance in the development of a World Affairs Seminar for high school students. From the beginning, the annual day-long program was built around a topic of current interest selected jointly by Rotary Club members and Shepherd College faculty, often addressing a tension or conflict in foreign affairs. The day began with an hour-long presentation of relevant background and history by a Shepherd College faculty member. Embassy representatives followed with their own informative expositions, specifically addressing the problem at hand. Finally, a representative of the U.S. State Department offered the official American position. Throughout the day, students, encouraged to ask questions, enlivened the discussion.

Four Decades in the Making

After sixty years, the seminar remains an annual event, and the original format, successful from the beginning, is still in use. Sponsorship was expanded in 1989 to include the newly formed Shepherdstown Rotary Club. In October a topic is selected, setting the wheels in motion for a program in early May. Juniors and seniors from high schools within a 75-mile radius of Shepherdstown—especially those with an interest in history, government and social science—are the target audience. To make the program truly special (rather than a day’s vacation from classes), each school is asked to limit participation to twenty students, ensuring that attendees are both informed and enthusiastic; indeed, student preparation and interest are consistently reflected in the caliber of the questions posed to speakers. Over the years, attendance has varied from a low of 70 to a high of 160, depending upon the topic chosen, the vagaries of school budgets and the availability of transportation. Attendance has grown to include both public and private schools—not only from West Virginia, but from nearby Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

Wide Ranging Topics for a Changing World

The programs have ranged widely, reflecting a progression of interests over years that have seen the Cold War, Viet Nam, the fall of the Soviet Empire, and current crises in the Middle East and the Balkans. The seminars are not exclusively related to wars and political upheavals. The subject matter may focus on economic issues, as it did in 1992, when American and Mexican representatives each presented their country’s point of view regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement. Because arrangements for securing speakers must be made well in advance of the program, planners keep their fingers crossed after selecting a topic, hoping that what is exciting in October will still be of interest in May. Generally, planners have exhibited skill and timeliness in their selection; sometimes, too, they are just plain lucky. The most recent program examined relations between the United States and the Peoples Republic of China. Just three weeks before the scheduled event, a Chinese fighter plane collided with an American reconnaissance aircraft, generating a high degree of public interest in U.S.–China relations and bringing decided drama to the day’s event. Unfolding historical events also propelled the 1990 seminar right to the finish line. In the fall, a program topic was announced: “Will the two Germanies ever be able to reunite?” A few weeks later, after the fall of the Berlin wall, the topic was subtly adjusted: “What are the possibilities of reunification?” Yet again, historic events overtook topic titles: “What are the mechanics of the imminent reunification?” was the title that appeared on the actual program. Discussion, however, veered yet again as the West German representative offered a detailed description of the manner of East Germany’s incorporation into the Federal Republic. He was followed on the program by the East German participant, who, seeing the handwriting on the wall (or, perhaps better said, no longer seeing the wall) chose to use his time to make a thinly veiled bid for employment in the Federal Republic’s Foreign Office, itemizing his qualifications in the diplomatic arena. (Followup suggests he was unsuccessful, at least on this occasion.)

Help From the Highest Levels

Over the years, many foreign embassies and the U.S. State Department have cooperated with program organizers to make the seminar an interesting event. A notable exception bears mentioning, however. In 1996 the topic was Cuba. The State Department declined the invitation to participate and, although not specifically stated, the lack of formal recognition of the Castro regime was almost certainly the deciding factor. Oddly enough, another federal agency, the FBI, took an interest in the seminar: perhaps they suspected some sort of subversive activity in Shepherdstown. Inquiries were made by an FBI agent a few days prior to the event, and two followup interviews were held with various participants, one immediately after the seminar and another three months later (the latter with the announced intention of determining if any extra-curricular activities or contacts by the Communist diplomat had occurred). Since the State Department declined to participate in the Cuban discussion, a representative from Miami’s Cuban expatriate community was given a spot on the program, offering, it was hoped, an important counterpoint to the views of the official Cuban representative. While the Castro diplomat graciously adhered to the program rule that participants not debate, the Miami emigré spent his time unpleasantly goading and baiting the Castro representative. In 1997, the largest group of speakers ever came to discuss the Balkan situation, including representatives from the U.S. State Department and the embassies of Croatia, Bosnia and Yugoslavia. At the beginning of the program, the tone of the day was established when the invited speakers could not even agree on how to refer to one another. Repeatedly, the Croatian and Bosnian representatives referred to the Yugoslavian as the “Serbian,” a matter of considerable irritation to him as he insisted that he represented the entire Yugoslavian Federation—and not just Serbia. In turn, he referred to the Bosnian as the “Muslim,” in spite of her statement that she was, in fact, a Catholic. Both the Yugoslavian “Serb” and the Bosnian “Muslim” called the Croatian a “Fascist,” a designation that, needless to say, was not well received by the Croatian. The incessant wrangling could not have offered students a better demonstration of entrenched Balkan attitudes. In 2018, the World Affairs Seminar attempted to untangle the issues surrounding immigration; and in 2019, the topic was climate change. In both instances, new emphasis has been placed on encouraging engagement by the participating students, following each of the World Affairs Seminar, mentored and encouraged by high school advisors. The current year’s topic on race relations includes participation in follow-up phase, on a voluntary basis.

What’s Next for the Seminar?

During the past sixty years, amidst many changes on the international scene, the World Affairs Seminar has offered local students a better understanding of the world in which they live. So, too, as participants in the seminar the communities of Shepherdstown and Martinsburg have been afforded a unique opportunity to view world affairs through a wide-angle lens.

There has been an intentional effort to select topics which have both local and global significance, in consultation with the faculty advisors of the participating schools (e.g., immigration in 2018; climate change in 2019, and now race relations in 2020-21).  Also, there is a more deliberate effort to promote voluntary follow-up actions by the participating students, encouraged and mentored by the faculty advisors, also in the spirit of service to the community (e.g., Phase 4 of this year’s WAS).  While it is recognized that follow-up actions by each of the schools and participating students is a challenge, especially during this period of COVID, there is growing recognition that encouraging follow-up engagement enhances both learning and the spirit of Rotary’s and Interact’s missions and service values.

When the subject of next October’s program is determined, in consultation with the faculty advisors and student leaders, it seems a fair guess that a significant issue will enable the identification of a strategic topic, while continuing to encourage follow-up engagement.