Verona Area High School students participate in Bridge the Pond program

Verona Area High School students and teacher Jason Knoll, top left, meet students from Espoo, Finland, during the launch of the Bridge the Pond program on Thursday, Nov. 12. VAHS was the first school to launch the pilot program started by the European Parliament’s Liaison Office in Washington, D.C.

A few weeks ago, 14 Verona Area High School students started meeting and learning from peers on the other side of the world – all from their own homes.

High school social studies teacher Jason Knoll is leading his students in a pilot program called Bridge the Pond, which the European Parliament’s Liaison Office in Washington, D.C. started.

High school students attended a kick-off meeting on Thursday, Nov. 12, meeting their Otaniemi Upper Secondary School counterparts from Espoo, Finland, which is a part of the Greater Helsinki capital region.

During the five-week program, students will convene over Zoom to discuss issues including climate change and circular economies and how to strengthen connections between U.S. and European Union youth after the pandemic. As the students discuss with each other, each group will come up with solutions together after initially presenting ideas to one another.

“The pandemic is providing us an interesting opportunity here,” Knoll said. “The topics are relevant to the students, but they’re also global issues – and global issues require global solutions.”

Each student is assigned a group, Knoll said, so they’ll only be working on one topic at a time.

On Dec. 15, the students are set to find compromises and present their final solutions to elected officials from the U.S., Finland and the E.U., European Parliament Senior Outreach Advisor Ryan Meilak told the Press.

The program came about as sentiments rose in the U.S. that the public might no longer be in favor of a strong European Union, Meilak said, which was surprising to those in his office and others who work with him, considering the past relations between the governments. Bridge the Pond isn’t meant as a form of pushing an ideology, Meilak added, but a means of getting people from different countries to talk to one another.

“We try to think about how we can make our contribution, how can we help push forward European and United States ties?” he said. “You can do this by bridging and connecting legislators, you can do it by bridging and connecting government officials, but there’s no better way than bridging people, because that’s where the links really live and thrive.”

While Verona isn’t the only U.S. high school to participate in the pilot program — which also includes schools in Virginia and Ireland, and Ohio and Sweden – it was the first to kick it off.

As the Meilak’s office formed the Bridge the Pond program, the original thought was to have students seeking bachelor’s or master’s degrees participate, he said, but it was changed to high school students because of the strong connections already established with their teachers. From there, Meilak said he needed to find a teacher who shared the E.U.’s vision and values – and Knoll came to mind.

Meilak and Knoll met one another over Twitter. Knoll, whose teaching speciality is relations between the U.S. and the E.U., was actively tweeting about current events and issues, and Meilak noticed.

Knoll signed onto the Bridge the Pond program quickly. When asked which member country he’d like to be connected with, Knoll said Finland because of how it educates its students.

“It’s continually ranked among the best (for education),” Knoll said. “They also have a really solid record on sustainable development goals … I thought, well, Finland is a natural (choice).”

Knoll said through the topic discussions, students will need to consider what the relationships are between the U.S. and the EU, and what the shared values are between the governments. And because issues are not limited to one country, Knoll added, providing students with the tools to think like global citizens and see the value in international ties will help solve problems in future years.

“If we want to strengthen those relations, we need to be considering how we educate the next generation of transatlanticists,” Knoll said. “I really hope they gain an appreciation for a different culture, and to be thinking about these issues so they begin to form their own opinions and start thinking about how they want their voice to be heard.”

Meilak said the Bridge the Pond program could be transformational for students, as many of them talk and interact with international students for the first time. For many of the Finnish students, Meilak said this will be their first time talking to someone from the U.S.

“You might impress five students, you might impress 10, you might impress two, but if five students take this experience with them, or it stays with them in a way that then it helps them develop later on and make choices on what they would like to do in life, for us, that’s already a huge success.”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.