Global Education: What We Learn by Traveling Around the World
By Basil Kolani, Director of Academic Affairs, Hackley School
When the destinations of the year’s various global journeys are unveiled, I’ve become accustomed to hearing variations of, “These students are so lucky!” from Hackley families. In the 2023–2024 school year, students in the Middle and Upper Schools will have the chance to have life-changing experiences in at least seven different countries through our Global Education program, living the part of the Hackley mission statement that challenges the community to “learn from the varying perspectives and backgrounds in our community and the world.” That we are able to provide opportunities to learn alongside others around the world is a truly special part of a Hackley education.
This past October, five Hackley students and three chaperones — a group that I was so fortunate to be part of — traveled first to Kigali, Rwanda and then to Nairobi, Kenya to participate in the 2023 Round Square International Conference, hosted by Brookhouse Schools in Nairobi. At the opening ceremonies of the conference, we were in a boma, a Swahili word for a community enclosure, with 1,200 delegates from 100 schools from 50 countries around the world. We were there, assembled as a Hackley delegation, when one of the opening speakers, Richard Turere, a Brookhouse alum, took the podium proudly wearing a Hackley pin. It was a moving experience to be at the conference’s opening ceremonies surrounded by delegates to meet from around the world. If anything reinforced that we are inhabitants of one small corner of the world, this was it.
We made our way through the conference schedule of Adventure Day, Service Day and Democracy Day, and as Hackley’s adult and student delegates started meeting other delegates, a funny thing happened. We made connections with delegates from schools that Hackley has worked with in the past; notably, we connected with International Community School of Ghana, who hosted the June 2023 Casten trip, and with an Upper School representative of Tamagawa Academy, whose Middle School students visited Hackley this past March.
During our two-day pre-conference stop in Rwanda, we reconnected with Green Hills Academy, a school that Hackley worked with pre-pandemic. Our group connected with adult delegates from Gabon, Colombia and Argentina, and one of our student delegates spent so much time with new friends from South Africa that he thinks he might have honorary citizenship by now. We also connected with close collaborators from the Upper West Side, a student delegate who someone in our group hadn’t seen since seventh grade, and with the mother of two former students who now works at a Round Square school in Connecticut. The experience of meeting someone and not knowing in advance where they were from underscored the commonality that we all shared.
A special experience that our delegates took part in was a homestay with a Brookhouse family, which further allowed them to learn about similarities and differences between cultures around the world. One of our student delegates shared the following about his homestay experience:
“My homestay with a Kenyan family in Nairobi was the most enlightening experience of the conference. Comparing cultural differences in a personal setting was an opportunity that I will cherish forevermore. The family’s close-knit bond and loving nature reminded me of life back home. Their customs and cuisine were different from what I was used to, but what struck me most were the similarities I discovered I share with people from an incredibly different background.”
Navigating the similarities and differences we had with everyone we met began before our arrival in Kenya. The first two days in our itinerary was a pre-conference stop in Rwanda. On our first full day, we spent time hiking through the Musanze Caves in Volcanoes National Park, visited the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and had an evening experience at a cultural center where former animal poachers gave our group and new friends from schools in Canada and China lessons in traditional Rwandan culture.
As we walked back to our buses, a soccer game broke out. Another of our student delegates shared this snapshot of the evening:
“One experience that I will never forget is playing plastic bag soccer with the kids in Rwanda. Seeing all the kids circling me, so excited to see me, was incredible. Not only did the experience truly open my eyes to the circumstances of people all around the world, but showed me that no matter what, nothing would stop these kids from having fun. One of the older boys told me that a few days prior, their soccer ball had popped. So, as a substitute, the kids took plastic bags and strings and tightly wrapped them together to make a ball. I felt it was only a microcosm of a greater sentiment. No matter the challenge, these kids had a solution; no matter the circumstances, these kids were not brought down. I was very touched.”
Extending learning beyond the Hilltop, the opportunities that Hackley’s global education program provides are once in a lifetime, and that drives the care, creativity and imagination that goes into planning each trip. Whether we are talking about painting Mr. Fuji from Hakone in Japan, visiting our yearly Middle School exchange partners in Vancouver, or having the chance to safari and help build new school buildings in Kenya, each experience provides a backdrop for learning from the connections that we make in our host countries as we discover more about their culture. The best learning happens when our students are able to immerse themselves fully in their surroundings and be open to anything that might come their way, from eating unfamiliar dishes to participating in unforeseen activities. I can say with complete certainty that our Hackley delegates were more prepared for this as citizens of a truly connected world than I was at their age!
As one of our Round Square student delegates to Kenya shared:
“When I first arrived, I was nervous about meeting new people and how they would perceive me and my fellow Hackley delegates, especially being American. However, when I started to worry less, I also started to expand my branches more, meeting new people and forming friendships I will forever cherish. One memory that I will never forget is when I was split up from the other Hackley delegates and put into a bus for the safari; I was pushed out of my comfort zone and will always be grateful for that, because if I had not been pushed, I may not have had the bonding experience I had with these other delegates: we were on a safari in Nairobi National Park, traveling in this big bus, spotting lions, ostriches and so forth. Eventually, the bus tried to turn around to go back the way we came, and all of a sudden the bus stopped. The guide then tells us that the bus is stuck and that we have to get out and push it. Everyone thought this was a joke or “part of the plan,” since we were actually supposed to be doing a scavenger hunt, but it was in fact not part of the plan. So, we had to exit the bus and push until it was no longer stuck; meanwhile, we were in the middle of a safari, just having spotted a lion a few minutes before. Regardless, it was still a highlight from my trip, being a perfect example of what Round Square is — people coming together to make a change that is greater than any one person alone.”
In Kenya, our student delegates spent time in baraza (a Swahili word that means a council or assembly) groups to discuss the speakers they heard from and activities they did together. Adult delegates on the trip connected with colleagues from other schools, many of whom were interested in Hackley as an exchange partner, and shared meals with them between sessions. We all learned so much about so many regions of the world during one evening’s cultural performances — I, personally, was enthralled by several Bollywood-esque performances and a martial arts display. It was the sharing with, learning from and being open to others’ experiences from around the world that emerged as the single most important experience of our trip.
Bringing the experiences that our global travelers have back to Hackley might be the greatest challenge of a global education program highlighted by so many amazing trips every year. The student application for our global journeys asks the following of students:
You would be considered Hackley’s delegate and, as such, would be responsible for both representing Hackley and bringing back information and inspiration to the Hilltop. In what ways would you strive to connect the Hackley community to the trip content upon your return?
The responsibility of being a Hackley delegate is one that our travelers take seriously, and the sharing of their experiences on the Hilltop can take place in a number of different ways. Last year’s Casten Italy travelers shared their experiences with Lower School students at a Community Time meeting. Last June’s Casten Ghana travelers held a reunion lunch in the Lindsay Room that they shared with others who were interested in experiencing Ghanaian cuisine.
And, I can’t help but remember fellow RSIC Kenya chaperone Rachel Mwakitawa talking to William Kamkwamba, author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, after a session at this year’s conference about how her first grade class has read the young readers edition of his book together and how they would love to hear more from him if he would be willing to record a short video for them (which he gladly did).
The amazing destinations and sights to which our global journeys allow students to travel are both impressive and awe-inspiring, but I maintain that it is the experience of learning from other cultures around the world and sharing our own while working together that is the most important takeaway of any journey. If any one of our travelers can help a student on the Hilltop gain this Kenya delegate’s perspective, we will be succeeding in making the experience come to life back at Hackley:
“After being able to attend the RSIC in Nairobi this past October, I learned so much about politics in foreign countries and different cultures, and also met new friends from all over the world. I think going on this trip, as well as attending future RSICs, is of great importance since I was able to not only learn about the apparent differences between myself, from New York, and those from other countries, but it also showed me just how similar we can be. Despite how different our surroundings can be when we are at home, deep down we are all growing up experiencing similar situations, such as the development of social media, climate change and the advancement of artificial intelligence and technology.”
So, yes, “these students are so lucky!” They get to visit awe-inspiring destinations around the globe and, even better, they have the opportunity to learn first-hand that there is more that unites us with others around the world than divides us and that, working together, we can accomplish so much.
Basil Kolani joined Hackley as Director of Academic Affairs in July 2022 after working as a teacher, department chair and administrator at independent schools in New York City and Connecticut. He has led teacher training workshops and served as a school visitor and consultant for schools in the United States and Canada for the International Baccalaureate and organized professional development experiences for New York-area teachers. He loves talking about teaching and learning, ’90s alternative and indie music, baseball and, now, where his next travel destination should be.