The Power of Global Experience

Readers of this blog know that I tend to encourage more structurally-focused civic action projects over service learning that brings students to briefly help out at a community service organization. Perfunctory service learning can be limited in its effect on either the students or the community. But there are times when “service” morphs into something deeper and more lasting. And that’s what Newburgh, NY high school English teachers Jacqueline Hesse and Christine McCartney found as they took 15 students on a service trip to Equador. Enjoy their story — and perhaps it will inspire you to create something like it.

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Traveling to a foreign country to engage in service work with students is no small task, and many teachers might rightfully lament about having enough to do between grading papers and planning lessons. But if you are interested in engaging students in community-based learning, the benefits of creating a global-service learning program with students can far outweigh the extra hours involved in making it happen. Global to Local, our global service learning program, combines service experiences both at home and abroad, with an embedded focus on learning about local and foreign cultures and understanding challenges faced by residents of both places. We have seen firsthand how when students are immersed in another culture to volunteer for positive social change, they become better prepared to look critically at their own community and work to make it a better place.

Decades of deindustrialization have left our city of Newburgh, once a thriving manufacturing center on the Hudson River, struggling with an increasing juvenile incarceration rate, entrenched drug and gang issues and a high poverty level. Over the last few years, however, community members, politicians and organizations have been working hard to better our city. As high school English teachers who love volunteering in Newburgh alongside our students, we knew the idea of creating a global service learning program was daunting, but seeing the rapid changes our community was undergoing made us realize we needed a way invite our students to think innovatively about their role in Newburgh and think broadly about community and civic engagement.

The Newburgh Enlarged City School District was fortunate to be chosen as a site for the P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) model by the State Education Department; our school, Excelsior Academy, is built through a partnership between the district, IBM, and our local community college, SUNY Orange. During our four-to-six year program, our students have the unique opportunity to earn an Applied Associates degree in either Cybersecurity or Networking while in high school, at no cost to the students. In this non-traditional model, students receive support from IBM in the form of mentors, internship opportunities, and a dedicated staff member to assist with our Work-Based Learning curriculum. At Excelsior Academy, we emphasize the importance of civic participation and volunteerism as part of our academic culture; our school is one of the many ways in which our district is turning obstacles into opportunities for our scholars. While all of these factors help set the stage for Global to Local, we believe firmly that our program is replicable, and that any dedicated group of educators and students can make this dream a reality.

Founded in 2015, applications for Global to Local are open to students in their third year of high school. The program has two main components: an international service-learning trip during the summer after students’ junior year, and Community Impact Projects, planned and implemented during their senior year. We seek students who are civic-minded, team-oriented, and motivated. The application includes invitations for students to discuss previous volunteer work and the impact those experiences have had on them as learners and community members. Through narrative responses, students reflect on their leadership skills, such as dedication, empathy, confidence, and adaptability, as well as their professional skills, including accountability and communication. Qualifying students are blind-reviewed by a selection board comprised of Excelsior and IBM staff and stakeholders representing our community partners.

Traditionally, students who want to pursue global service-learning must do so through expensive for-profit companies; but by relying solely on grant writing and student fundraising, global travel becomes a possibility for all of our students. The 2017 Global to Local cohort included eight males and seven females, all of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. Of those, ten are Latino(a), two are African-American, three are white, and one is Middle Eastern, closely mirroring the demographics of our school. This year, we secured travel funding through the generosity of the Foundation for Learning and Youth Travel Education (FLYTE). Students fundraised money to purchase and donate books, robots, tablets, a printer, and construction materials to Casa Victoria, our host organization abroad by organizing community nights at local restaurants, selling fair trade jewelry from Ecuador, raffling “Best of Newburgh” baskets containing gift certificates to local businesses and designing and selling t-shirts.

After taking Global to Local’s first cohort of students to volunteer for ten days in Quito, Ecuador this summer, we invited our students to share some of the journal entries they wrote while there. We used excerpts from five of the fifteen students who traveled with us to reflect, ourselves, on how this trip shaped us as educators and cemented our views on the importance of creating a global classroom.

What follows are some realizations we want to hold onto and share.

Young people find a sense of empowerment and fulfillment through helping others. Here, Jason and Aboya reflect in their journals about volunteering with underserved youth in the capital city of Quito:

Jason: I was carrying a small boy named Justin. He was always moving, trying to avoid being tagged, almost falling off my shoulders trying to tag others, while I was running away from others and it was an enjoyable time. Although I was becoming tired as the time passed, with shoulder pain beginning to take over, we did not stop. No one mentioned how tired they were, only how happy the little ones were. My back and shoulders were aching afterwards, but it didn’t matter. The important thing was that we were all enjoying this moment, playing with one another, and that the kids were laughing with happiness. They kept laughing, enjoying the time as much as possible.

Aboya: I think I’ve rediscovered the meaning, purpose and enjoyment of giving back. I got so used to doing small actions that helped people at home, that I never really felt like I did anything apart from what I was supposed to do. Being here at Casa Victoria was a choice and a privilege, and I actually get see the change I’m making through things like smiles on little kids’ faces. The tranquility and serenity I feel here away from my actual life is like a mental detox.

Travel helps people exceed their own expectations. Below, Taina shares an entry from her journal where she describes hiking Pichincha mountain, where we wrote as we looked down at Quito and the surrounding valley.

Taina: Today had to be one of the most memorable days. I pushed myself to my physical limits and ended up hiking up to an elevated point of 14,000 feet. It was an amazing experience that was worth every minute. The views were absolutely stunning and I had never seen anything like it in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever taken that many pictures in a span of 20 minutes. The more time we’re spending here the more I realize what a beautiful country Ecuador is and all the amazing things it has to offer.

When young people travel to a foreign country, it shifts their perspective on home and the world. The following excerpts were written after traveling to an isolated mountain village inhabited by Afro-Ecuadorians; here, students describe ways in which the experience challenged or shifted their ideas of themselves, others, and our places in the world.

Maribel: A lot of people take things for granted, like water and food. I saw that they had to get food from two other big families to feed all twenty of us. It was kind of sad because there were a lot of kids there who were very skinny. It made me worry about the families who lived there…what if, because they were helping to feed us, they didn’t have enough to feed their own families?

Aboya: So today when we were walking, I definitely enjoyed taking in all the beauty of Ecuador, but I also noticed all the not so nice things — the people out on the streets with soiled clothes, all the dogs running about the streets searching for food. Seeing that just does something to you. Makes you stop and reflect on life a little. I’m thankful for all the gracious opportunities afforded to me and everything that I have.

Addison: One of the elders I spoke with today said that he was grateful for us to come so [we would] see a different perspective on life and how other people live without using technology, and how everything that they have is natural, and how they work hard for what they have. We get distracted by things, by material things. We should enjoy playing outside, being in nature, without being inside playing on our phones all day.

Travel builds empathy, and challenges a single story that a young person might have in his or her mind about people who come from a different place or background. Both Jason and Aboya found ways to relate to the people they met in Ecuador, despite any language or cultural barriers.

Jason: I was trying to put my mind into how they would think, how they would see the situation, how they would see us coming to them to play soccer, even though we didn’t know them. But at the same time, we both know how to play soccer, so I think that just automatically connected everybody.

Aboya: They’re really welcoming and open. That’s not the type of culture you see in America. You walk by someone and you ignore them. But [here] everyone you saw, they said hi, hola […] so I felt the need to be happy, and reply […] and it felt good, too.

When students and teachers volunteer alongside one another, the student-teacher dynamic shifts. Although we can’t help but feel grateful for how much our students learned from their experience, perhaps the most powerful idea that we want to hold on to comes from the experience of working and living communally with our students. We cooked, cleaned, washed dishes, ate, and wrote together. Breathless, we stood atop a mountain and looked down at the distance we had climbed. We practiced yoga on the lawn in the Andes Mountains. We sang on the bus and bartered in the market. Side by side, we built a learning center, after a crash course in how to lay bricks. We watched our students as they sat on the floor, teaching young children, who had barely any access to technology, to code robots and build simple electrical circuits in the after-school program. We felt the slow dissolution of the arbitrary barrier between teacher and student, as we learned to see each other more completely as people, each with his/her own strengths, weaknesses, dreams and goals.

Despite the extra hours we spent planning, fundraising for and organizing this trip, there hasn’t been a single moment when we regretted it. In fact, seeing our students return from their travels ready to roll up their sleeves and take on community impact projects in our city, combined with hearing about their newfound love and appreciation for travel is motivating. When we envision the future of Global to Local, we know our next group of students will feel the same sense of growth, empowerment, empathy, and gratitude… and we cannot wait to get started.