Seattle students get global exposure, thanks to a trip abroad with Learning AFAR
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”~Mark Twain
When it comes to valuing departures from our own corner of the earth, the folks at AFAR Media could not agree more. Anyone who’s leafed through AFAR’s exquisitely colorful and enticing magazine pages knows that these passionate wanderlusters live and breathe travel, believing wholeheartedly in the transformative power of cultural immersion.
In 2009, the AFAR Foundation launched a nonprofit group to spread this gift even further, this time to low-income, high-achieving students from schools across the U.S. Learning AFAR leads international expeditions “to provide [students] with a comprehensive education through cross-cultural exchanges.” Says Greg Sullivan, CEO & Co-Founder of AFAR Media, “At AFAR, we believe travel is the best form of education.”
This summer, some fortunate youth from our own community—students from Seattle’s TAF Academy—joined peers from schools in Chicago and New York City on an adventure of a lifetime in Costa Rica. We recently caught up with Olga Mash, the trip leader from TAF Academy, to hear about the lessons learned and inspiration acquired on their recent jaunt abroad.
Seattleite: How many students from TAF Academy traveled to Costa Rica, and what cities/towns did you visit?
Olga Mash: Ten TAF Academy students ranging from 13-16 years old travelled to Costa Rica. Cities/regions and towns included: San Jose, La Carpio (area within San Jose where Nicaraguan immigrants reside) and the Sarapiqui Region.
S: Had any of the students left the country before?
OM: Only a few of the students had gone to their country of origin to visit family (Mexico, Moldova), prior to the Learning AFAR trip.
S: What were some highlights from your trip?
OM: This question reminds me of grade school when the teacher asks you not to highlight all of the text. In this case, I can’t help it. I do not exaggerate when I say every moment on this trip was a precious high point. From the long, scenic rides in a vintage turquoise tour bus to exploring San Jose’s central market. The sounds, tastes and smells were so foreign, yet familiar in a way. We found comfort in their laughter and solace in their cultural values.
Yes, going on a relaxing vacation near a beach is nice. Thankfully, that is not what we did. The students and I experienced Costa Rica in such a nontraditional way. We participated in a scavenger hunt in the San Jose Central Market, took part in a service project with the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation (in La Carpio), took tours of a pineapple plantation and an organic coffee farm and dined with a local Costa Rican family, among other activities.
S: In what ways did you see the students change throughout the duration of your trip?
OM: The students had never been so far away from their families and friends. On top of which, they were released from their everyday technologies that monopolized their lives. Being away from all of these distractions opened their mind to different experiences. About midweek, during our evening reflection, students were prompted to think about the people who impacted their lives in a positive way. This emotion-filled conversation allowed students to explore their lives at home in a safe, distraction-free environment.
During our pre-trip meetings, students seemed to lack leadership skills and passion for service. Now the students are fired up to create similar community environments in their own neighborhoods. They have taken this leadership role seriously, and I am excited to see the fruits of their labor.
S: What were the biggest challenges the students faced in this cross-cultural exchange? The biggest surprise?
OM: Silly Challenge: Due to temperature and lush vegetation, Costa Rica affords such a diversity of insects. Knowing this, I came prepared with a bed net. According to the students, these creepy crawly creatures were one of the barriers on the trip. From infestation of army ants in lodges to cockroaches skittering across their beds, the students held on to their cans of bug repellent as if it were their lifelines. Once the students began exploring the tropical rainforest through a micro lens, they understood that this was the insects’ home, and we were occupying it, whether it be on nature hikes or in the lodges. By the end of the trip, students were less likely to jump at the first site of movement on the floor…so I guess that’s progress.
Serious Challenge: The second barrier on this trip had to do with language. Only two of the students in our group spoke Spanish. The remaining students and I felt insecure and timid around the locals. Even though Costa Ricans are quite friendly, being able to speak Spanish with them would have proven to be a more dynamic experience. However, this led to a conversation around what it would feel like to immigrate to a country where English was not readily spoken.
Biggest surprise: Students assumed there would be swarms of kids asking for money or trinkets. However, even in the poorest areas such as La Carpio, panhandling wasn’t seen.
S: AFAR hopes that these experiences “help students understand that they are part of a larger, interconnected world, with their actions having an impact on the world around them.” Do you think this rang true for the students on your trip?
OM: Very much so! While going through the tours of agricultural plantations, the students were challenged to think of the human and environmental impacts of production and pesticide use. Since Costa Rica is small and their growth seasons are more frequent (closer to the equator), the effects of agriculture are readily seen in plants and wildlife. Witnessing the process of production and meeting the people who work on the plantations helped students understand the amount of natural resources and energy needed to produce and transport food sent to the United States.
S: Now that you’re back in Seattle, in what ways will the returning students act as global ambassadors?
OM: During the trip, students developed a love of Costa Rican sense of community. One of the students who attended the trip, Musa, who is in 7th grade, said, “So many kids here play outside. They share and don’t complain. In my neighborhood, no one goes outside to play and talk with each other. I wish that we could have communities like this.”
This statement later prompted a discussion about acceptance of differences within a community. In light of recent events in Ferguson, Mo., the students hypothesized that less face-to-face time with community members may contribute to injustices of minority groups in the United States. Allowing kids to play with other kids who may not look, think, or act the same way as they do would impact their understanding of these injustices and would weed out the egocentric mindset of those who think themselves more superior to others. Therefore, the students are currently putting into action an Outdoor Community Sports Program for kids in their local neighborhood. Additionally, students will also be volunteering their time with foster kids who are in need of encouragement and support in academics.
S: As a leader, what did you take away from the experience?
OM: As an immigrant from Ukraine, I thought myself a pilgrim. Leaving everything they knew, my parents, the brave visionaries, landed in Washington state with little money and four mouths to feed. I am a product of what they call the “American dream.” Hard work, schooling and consumerism occupied most of my life. I was raised to think that hard work and schooling would lead to a career which would then lead to financial success which would then lead to happiness. It made no sense really—to see Costa Ricans so happy. Yet, there they were. Refuting every assumption I had about what makes one satisfied.
In the past, walking through a grocery store meant picking up a few things (whether I needed them or not) and after purchasing, placing them in the cupboard. Ever since I’ve been back, I haven’t been able to look at consumables or products in the same way. I ask myself, what kind of impact am I making by purchasing this thing? In grade school and all through college, I learned about social, cultural and environmental impacts…You know the negative ones that are supposed to make you feel guilty but never do, because it’s out of sight and out of mind. Being in Costa Rica changed that. It was a connection that I needed to make in order for real change to occur in my life.
Being a classroom teacher, I make an impact on how my students think about themselves in this globalized society. This trip has allowed opportunities of communication that I never had before. I am now able to speak to the social, cultural and environmental impacts that we create. This will, in turn, bring students closer to their own understanding of what it means to be a global citizen.