Carrboro High School in Carrboro, North Carolina is an unlikely meeting place for leaders of international aid and development. But over the years, global studies teacher Matt Cone has given his students face time with an impressive list of guests: former USAID administrator Rajiv Shah, Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist Mohammed Yunus, first lady Laura Bush and more. 

Most meetings have taken place by Skype and phone, but last year, Cone’s students flew to New York to meet with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. Cone says his students, steeped in issues of economic development and international aid, were “thrilled” to meet Kim, as you can see from this selfie:

CHS students pose for selfie with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Feb 2014. (Credit: Matt Cone)
CHS students pose for a selfie with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Feb 2014.

But just meeting with leaders and reading books about global poverty is not enough for 43-year-old Cone. “I’ve actually become a bit skeptical about the value of simply raising awareness,” he tells us. “It seems kind of sanctimonious to me, too. It almost seems to suggest that I know what the truth is, and if I raised your awareness we’d be good to go.”

Students are urged to debate complex issues with each other and the leaders they meet. They take action, too. After a class read Mountains Beyond Mountains about Partners in Health co-founder Paul Farmer, students went on that year to raise $20,000 for PIH, which brings low-cost healthcare to developing nations. All told, Carrboro students have raised more than $150,000 for nonprofits.

“I wanted to teach a course where students had access to people who were trying to make a difference in the world,” Cone says. “And I thought that if they got something that was different from a fairy tale version, they might actually become interested in being engaged citizens.”

Carrboro students have gone on to work in rural Africa and the Peace Corps; one is on his way to becoming a medical doctor focusing on global health. Here is Cone and five of his students speaking at a conference in Haiti:

Cone and CHS students at Haitian Studies Conference, Haiti, 2014. (Credit: Matt Cone)
Cone and CHS students at Haitian Studies Conference, Haiti, 2014.

Perhaps the biggest surprise invitation Cone ever received came from Howard G. Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Cone had invited the younger Buffett to speak to students by Skype or phone about his work alleviating world poverty and hunger.  Instead, Buffett offered to fly 20 students to his home in Decatur, Illinois. Cone was thrilled, but it also presented him with a problem. “How do you pick the 20 kids?”

Cone decided to put his students to work, in the form of a global poverty reading club. They met at 7:00 a.m. each week. If students were late or failed a test, they were out. “It was just real hardball because the idea is, for God’s sakes, Howard’s going to fly you out to Illinois to pick his brain, and you’ve got to be willing to put some effort in beforehand.” Students read books about food policy and macroeconomic theory. The result? Buffett invited Cone’s students back five years in a row.

CHS students and Howard Buffet
CHS students with Howard Buffett in January 2014.

Cone says he likes the notion that in life, you should always be learning and doing. “If you find yourself only learning with no outlet, that’s probably unhealthy,” he tells us. “And if you find yourself only doing but you’re not reflective of things and what have you learned, then that’s not so healthy either.”

For Cone himself, he says he feels good about the world when he’s with his students. “I feel like they’re going to push this thing forward far more than my generation did.”

Additional Resources

Matt Cone’s New York Times op-ed: Engaging in Global Issues in the Classroom and Beyond

Carrboro High School’s Global Health Club on Twitter

Carrboro High School’s fundraising page for Partners in Health’s Ebola efforts.

Carrboro High School graduate, Meg VanDeusen, writes about her experience in Haiti for the blog Everyday Ambassador. “My newfound connection to Haiti has given me the stamina to work in complexities, the desire to think deeply about the roots of challenges in developing nations, and the confidence to discern how I might use my talents in a productive and humble way to address tough problems.”

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim’s book recommendation to Cone’s class: American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company. “As you get older, you realize the limits of what can be done through smaller initiatives,” Kim apparently told Cone’s class. “You’re going to need large institutions to be involved. So if you want to read about a person who really gets people in large institutions to work together, you should read this book.”

(All photos courtesy Matthew Cone.)