Traveling Teaches Students in a Way Schools Can’t

Published December 2, 2014

American education is largely limited to lessons about the West.




When I turned 15, my parents sent me alone on a one-month trip to Ecuador, the country where my father was born. This was tradition in our family—for my parents to send their first-generation American kids to the country of their heritage, where we would meet our extended family, immerse ourselves in a different culture, and learn some lessons on gratefulness.

My family’s plan worked. That month in Ecuador did more for my character, education, and sense of identity than any other experience in my early life. And five years later, my experience in Ecuador inspired me to spend more time abroad, studying in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. These two trips not only made me a lifelong traveler, but also a person who believes traveling to developing countries should be a necessary rite of passage for every young American who has the means.

It’s often said that spending time in less affluent countries teaches Americans never to take anything for granted. To some extent, this is true. During my time traveling in these areas, I often traveled without access to hot water, Internet, air conditioning, or even basic electricity. I slept in rooms with spiders, mosquitos, and bedbugs. I rode on public transportation that rarely left on time and often broke down suddenly in remote areas. Stripped of my daily habits and expectations, I was forced to surrender the idea that I have a right to anything—including the luxury of convenience, or days when everything I’ve planned actually happens. And my minor travel hassles seemed even more petty when I realized that they represented larger systemic problems that locals must deal with every day.

But these trips didn’t only teach me to appreciate what I had; they also moved me to consider why I had it in the first place. I realized that much of what I thought was necessity was, in fact, luxury and began to realize how easily I could survive off of much less. I didn’t necessarily need hot water or a timely bus or a comfortable bed to be happy for the day. I didn’t necessarily need a jaw-dropping landscape or a famous archeological ruin or a stunning beach to make my travels worth it. Instead, most of the time, that fulfillment came from the people I interacted with—not the things I had or did. It came from eating soup with locals at a rest stop on a 12-hour bus ride, sharing a meal with Peruvian soccer fans while watching a match, or chatting with the owner of my hostel during his lunch break. Discovering that my best travel moments came from these subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones made me understand that living contently required little. What I originally thought I “took for granted,” I now rethought taking at all.

My best travel moments came from subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones.

Before traveling, I also assumed people from developing countries would all want the advantages I had as an American. And yet, I discovered that the people in these countries didn’t necessarily feel like their lives were lacking. During my last visit to South Africa, I worked with John Gilmour, the executive director of LEAP schools, a charter network for low-income students. Gilmour told me about an encounter he had visiting a Cape Town township community before he decided to open his first school near there. A local showed him a street corner and told him, “This is my favorite place in the whole entire world.” Gilmour was skeptical and argued, “How could you say that? Look at the graffiti, look at the trash covering the floor, look at the unpaved road.” The other man responded, “No, look at the people.”

Traveling to these places made me realize that the “advantages” I initially thought I had over others were not necessarily advantages to everyone. Many actually preferred living with the challenges they faced over living in a country like mine, where other things are missing. A professional I met in South America who had turned down a job offer in the United States told me, “I’d never want to move there, even though I’d make more money. The social part of life is better here, I find people happier here, and my quality of life is what matters most.” Rick Steves, the popular travel guidebook writer and television host, expressed similar thoughts in an interview with Salon when he said, “It’s a very powerful Eureka! moment when you’re traveling: to realize that people don’t have the American dream. They’ve got their own dream. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.”

These were important lessons for me to learn as a young person in the midst of making important life decisions. It was empowering to know I had experienced a wide range of perspectives and could use them to make choices for myself—that I had been in situations with few resources or comforts, and I was still okay.

This past summer, I volunteered as a program leader for Global Glimpse, a nonprofit organization that takes American high school seniors on three-week trips to Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador.* My students—who came from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds—visited local museums, cultural centers, and businesses, learned about fair-trade business practices, and volunteered at local nonprofits. They milked goats and carried wood on their backs to experience a day working like a local farmer. They spent an afternoon visiting the city dump where families work sifting through the trash to gather recyclable materials to make $1 to $2 a day. They also learned about the ongoing U.S. involvement in Nicaraguan politics, hearing stories from locals whose families had lives been altered by political instability.

Many of my students admitted that they had not once learned about Nicaraguan history or culture in their 11 years of education. Before I traveled, my own public school education had taught me little about non-Western people, cultures, and history, or how American policy had shaped them. American history classes instead focused on wars fought on our own soil instead of the many conflicts we involved ourselves in abroad. The Advanced Placement program in high school still only offers specialized courses in American and European history, and lumps the rest into the broader topic of “World History.” With this Western-focused curriculum, traveling to developing countries is often the only way of gaining any perspective on less-developed parts of the world.

My public school education had taught me little about non-Western people, or how American policy had shaped them.

Yet, unfortunately, most Americans have not prioritized these kinds of experiences. Unlike the U.K., where 75 percent of citizens have passports, in the U.S. the rate hovers around 45 percent, with some surveys showing that more than half of the population has never traveled outside of the country. When Americans do travel, the most popular destinations are in Europe or resort locations around the Caribbean—places that cater to a traveler’s sense of comfort and luxury. I can only imagine how American culture, business, and politics might change if more young people decided to forgo a comfortable vacation and instead pursue a genuine travel experience—not a short-lived, consumer-oriented “voluntourism” trip, where privileged visitors drop in casually without careful research or consideration of long-term needs—but a trip where people are driven to challenge what we accept as “normal” or “real.”

My parents were on to something when they decided to send me to Ecuador years ago. But that trip did far more than teach me lessons on culture and gratitude. It fundamentally changed my life trajectory and the way I wanted to engage with the world. I hope more American students can have the opportunity to experience the same.



Navigating Nicaragua: A Lesson In Getting Lost

Published August 18, 2014

A motorcyclist drives past a mural of revolutionary heroes in Managua, Nicaragua. Most streets in the country don’t have names. People give directions by using reference points, mostly Lake Managua, when in the capital. Carrie Kahn/NPR

August 16, 2014

One of the most popular songs by the Irish band U2 is about a place where the streets have no names. That place could be Nicaragua, the small Central American nation where I just got back from a reporting trip.

While major boulevards and highways do have names in Nicaragua, and some buildings even have numbers, no one uses them. So if you are trying to get around or find an office building, let’s say to interview someone, then you’re in trouble.

The way to navigate Nicaragua, I quickly learned, is by reference points. When in the capital, most involve the lago, Lake Managua. Two blocks to the lake, then go three blocks south and one down. Lost? I was, constantly.

But I had help from my Nicaraguan producer, Dorisell Blanco, who thankfully also did all the driving. Her address: Start from the place where all the journalists live, head south to the entrance, go two blocks down, one to the south, two more down and then almost to the corner to the green wall.

That address is what’s written on all the bills that come to her house and in the phone book. “God help her the day they paint that wall a different color than green … everyone is going to get lost,” Blanco says.

But people don’t seem to get lost, and the mail and pizzas get delivered. The firemen also get to the fires, insists fire chief Francisco Reyes.

“We’re all used to it … so it’s hard just for the out-of-towners,” Reyes says. Though he admits he has received some odd directions. Once a dispatcher gave him the reference point, and then said from there go three blocks down and three blocks up. He was back where he started.

If that isn’t mind-numbing enough, there are two more complicating factors when getting directions: the vara and what I call the donde fue. Vara is an old Spanish measurement that turns out, depending where you are in the world, is about a yard. People will tell you often to go two varas south and then one vara north. It’s used interchangeably with a block, but a much shorter distance.

The donde fue direction, now, that’s the toughest. That’s a reference for something that used to be there. For example, the church that fell in the 1972 earthquake or a supermarket long closed, but everyone used to go to.


But here’s the best part of the system: It works. That’s because everyone helps out. Once you get close to your reference point, you start asking for directions. Everyone we ever asked was very willing to help. The direction discussion usually turned into a five-minute ordeal, not efficient at all, but always, always, extremely friendly.

Partner Spotlight: Cambodian Living Arts

Published December 11, 2013

In order to fully understand and appreciate the empowerment Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) provides for Cambodian artists, we must learn about Cambodia’s history. Between the years of 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge, a revolutionary anti-Western group that gained power, conducted genocide of Cambodians. It is estimated that during those years, 2 million Cambodians died from execution, torture, starvation, and overwork at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Among those who perished, about 90% were artists, musicians, and other creative individuals who were perceived to be embracing Western ideas of culture. The few remaining artists hid their identity in order to blend in and ultimately save their lives. In the decades following the Cambodian genocide, the people were crippled with economic hardships and could not make a living on their artistic talents. Oral traditions of passing down artistic and musical knowledge ceased and there was fear certain talents would be lost forever. 
Then, in 1998, Arn Chorn-Pond, the founder of CLA, and a small group of dedicated people decided to track down and revitalize the sliver of magnificent Cambodian talent still remaining. Initially, the program included four Master Artists who had the ability to teach and spread traditional Cambodian arts. Chorn-Pond and the blossoming CLA provided these artists with instruments, teaching spaces, and a salary to nurture the revitalization of Cambodian culture. By offering classes to youths, CLA spreads Cambodian artistic heritage and focuses on the preservation and recovery of Cambodian traditional arts. Over the years, CLA grew to support 16 Master Artists and 11 assistant teachers reaching over 200 students in 8 provinces in Cambodia yearly.
“We believe that through creativity we can each expand our potential as human beings.”

            More than simply recovering and preserving Cambodian arts, CLA hope to create self-sustainable channels of empowerment and global awareness of Cambodia’s history and culture. In 2010, CLA was awarded a Global Vision Award for Cultural Restoration from Travel + Leisure magazine. Their work promoting peace in Cambodia has led to a cultural transformation. Through the arts, individuals and communities connect with their heritage and identity lost during a dark time of oppression.

            Like CLA, Peace Works Travel (PWT) values peace and the restoration of culture and identity in countries stricken with war, oppression, and genocide. Through educating youth on these atrocities and their effects on the people, students become advocates and evolve into globally conscious citizens. Currently, PWT has two upcoming trips to Cambodia: an 11-day Cambodia Alive! Tour and a 15-day Renaissance Tour. Both of these trips include workshops with CLA, such as sitting in on classes, trying out instruments, and listening to teachers share their incredible stories.

‘We could see a lot of pockmarks in the ground – bomb craters’

Published April 29, 2013


Student spring break traveler Marcy Park describes the depth of her profound learning experience on our Peace Works Travel tour of Laos, spring break 2013. The Investigative Journalism Adventure is an inspired approach at international student volunteer education. With daily lessons in technique from an Emmy-Award winning journalist,  Students interviewed UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) victims, agricultural people in the highlands of northern Laos who accidentally detonate cluster bombs dropped by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Student films will be used to raise consciousness and funds to help create sustainable farming businesses for the UXO-afflicted. 

This was my first time out of the country without my parents, and my first time in Southeast Asia. I had been to Mexico to do charity work, but then I could run to my mother whenever something different from normal life in the bubble that is America scared me. We had even packed Korean food to eat while we were there.

This time, I was going with adults I had never known before and classmates I had never known well. I had no idea what the food would be like in Laos.
Before I went there, I had not even known where the country was on the map. I dreaded having to ask all the time if the water was safe to drink, and I was terribly afraid of getting lost. My mother gave me, along with a giant load of baby wipes, hand sanitizer and granola bars, an absurd amount of “emergency money,” telling me if I did get lost, to buy an airplane ticket and fly home instead of bothering to find my group, and also never to hire a cab; it just was not safe. This only frightened me more, and the last thing I remember doing while waiting for our flight is shaking from nerves.
I know these confessions sound anything but fitting for someone who signed herself up for an “Investigative Journalism Adventure” to document the effects of the Secret War waged on Laos by the United States during the Vietnam War. At least I can assure anyone that what I saw on this trip was well worth the anxiety.

During a layover we toured some of Bangkok, where next to temple roofs encrusted with glittering jewels I saw rows of houses made of rusting sheet metal. There didn’t seem to be any segmentation between rich and poor neighborhoods. Every one of these sheet metal houses had perched on its roof a giant red satellite dish. One company seemed to have a monopoly on all of Thailand’s television service. In Laos, one company made almost all of the motorcycles, and one made almost all of the vans. Essentially every restaurant or bar or hotel had on its sign a picture of a brand of beer called Beerlao.

Eventually, we landed in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, at an airport the size of a small train station and passed through customs by handing our documents to officers sitting in little booths of bamboo.

We visited COPE, an organization that provides prosthetics to victims of the cluster bombs left in the ground from the Secret War. The purpose of these bombings by the United States had been to get rid of communists in Laos and cut off a supply trail the North Vietnamese had used during the Vietnam War. More than two million tons of ordnance were dropped, and about one third of the bombs did not explode right away, most of them remaining in the ground today.

We met a man who lost both of his hands and his eyesight when one of these unexploded ordnances had blown up near him on his 16th birthday. He was one of the happiest and funniest people I had ever met, even when he had lost so much.

Next, we surveyed a hospital, barely lit and full of chaos with patients scattered all over the place, some of whom were the casualties of unexploded ordnances. I realized that the Secret War affected people even now. I remembered how I had not had one clue about what was going on in Laos before I arrived. Now I had met real people with real problems because of the Secret War, and there was more to come.

In Xiangkhouang Province we spent most of our time visiting and interviewing families of bomb victims. As we approached our landing at an airport the size of a house, we could see a lot of pockmarks in the ground – bomb craters.

Among the people we visited on our first day was a 3-year-old who had lost his eyesight and much of his face to shrapnel from an unexploded bomb. I had the privilege of playing with him and meeting his grandmother, who reminded me so much of my own.

The next day we visited another family whose father had lost both legs because of a bomb that exploded while he was working in the fields. His oldest son, about my age, had dropped out of school to take care of his five siblings.

These were brave people that I met. Interviewing them was by far my favorite part of the trip. I had always liked asking questions, but these interviews were set apart by the stories they had to tell.

We spent our last few days in Luang Prabang, visiting preschools to play with the kids and taking the time to ride elephants and shop.

When I got home I was too tired to tell my parents about the people I met. Instead, I went on and on about things that seemed like more of a backdrop, like signs in the airport warning travelers not to sneak their livestock through security inside their suitcases. The last thing I told my mom before she went to sleep was that Korean pop stars were very popular in Laos.

But now that I’m home and over the jet-lag, I do want to tell people about the really important parts of my trip — all the stories I had gotten from the incredible people I had met in Laos. I don’t want to wallow in ignorance as I did before I left. The next step for me to take is to let people know first how different it is in places like Laos, then how they can help the situation there.

By Marcella Park
Student-traveler article reposted from the Harvard Westlake School Chronicle.