While being interviewed for our annual World Scholars Program ‘recap’ video, I was asked a few very interesting questions that brought me back to South Africa and reminded me how much I as an adult learned by traveling abroad to the Motherland. The question that I enjoyed answering the most (despite disliking being on camera and being beyond nervous that I would stumble over my words) was a question that is seemingly quite innocuous, but does have many more layers than one would initially think. The question was; why is it important that children get the opportunity to travel outside the United States?
The simple and obvious answers would be: to get more exposure, to understand the strengths and challenges of other places and how those strengths and challenges impact the United States, to be able to understand the world and gain a larger world view, to help others, and the list goes on. Something that may not come to mind immediately, and something that certainly was not the first thing to come to my mind, is to gain confidence, independence, competence, and the social skills necessary to move throughout the world as a global citizen. During the fourteen whirlwind days we spent traveling, touring, volunteering and learning our students grew immeasurably.
Now, as some of my adult colleagues might lament, each student grew at a different rate and we all had our share of challenges in regards to discipline and management, but all the students, from our youngest ‘student’ who was a mere 6 month old baby to our oldest students who were preparing to enter the seventh grade, each and every one of them were shaped and molded in (happily) irreversible ways. From the moment we boarded the bus en route to the airport and one student confided in me that he had never been on an airplane before, I knew this trip was going to be different from any trip I had ever taken before. This small admission of trepidation brought us closer (well, it made me feel closer to him at any rate) and it sparked a fondness in me for this child that I would not have experienced had we not joined together on this adventure.
As the days progressed, I learned so many things about our students. I learned about their fears, their triumphs, the things that made them happy and the people and places that made up their childhood. As students chatted happily on the treacherous ferry ride to Robben Island (the island which houses the famed prison of the same name where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned) about this musician and that TV show, I wondered what they would make of being on an island that was used primarily to incarcerate hundreds of political prisoners, everyday people who stood up and spoke out about the injustices around them. Needless to say, we were all changed that afternoon. On the return trip, students spoke about the feelings they had standing in Nelson Mandela’s cell, walking through the dining halls, restrooms and recreation spaces that Mandela frequented during his eighteen years of captivity. That evening they reflected about how they would have felt if they were in the same situation and despite the abysmal conditions that the imprisoned at Robben Island endured, they voiced that they would have still spoken out against apartheid even if it meant having to spend time at Robben Island. From conversations about who had the newest gadgets and the coolest shoes to conversations about being freedom fighters and being desireful to follow in the footsteps of a cultural and political icon, our students began peeling back and discarding the ‘I’ and began to don the robes and responsibilities of the collective ‘We’.
As an administrator, a teacher and as a parent, it is so uplifting to see the changes that our students are making. It is fascinating to see the growth and development as they advance by leaps and bounds. Their experiences are molding them into budding intellectuals and political activists. The World Scholars Program does more than provide students with the opportunity to travel abroad. It teaches them to become critical thinkers, independent young men and women, collectively conscientious humanitarians. It teaches them to evolve into the people who will be leading tomorrow’s businesses and government programs and will pave the way for a new generation, a new society wherein VLA students will strive to correct the errors of our ways and create a humbler, more introspective, more peaceful and safer world. I am proud to have had the honor of teaching the World Scholars Program Class of 2013 and journeying with them on a path to self-discovery and political action in South Africa. Amandla!