Each summer, Middle School Spanish and history teacher Sarah DeCamps leads groups that include Landon and Holton-Arms students on service trips to Honduras and Belize, where they work at local schools and orphanages and experience the culture firsthand. In this blog post, Sarah writes about the powerful lessons students can learn through international travel and cultural immersion.
September is always one of my favorite months. I believe in a fresh start, and this month marks the beginning of a new year. Which means, for me, summer marked the end. This year, I feel incredibly blessed. Maybe even more than other years. This is because I was able to see and do so much in just a short time over the summer.
For me, as for many people, summer is not only the end to a year but it is also a time to travel. This past summer I traveled a lot.
There are very few possessions I regard with more value than my passport. It is prized. This is because outside of the great teachers and adults I’ve known in my life, who have taught me many important lessons, my passport has been another teacher to me. And an incredibly unique one. Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my life have been outside the confines of a school and in places far from home. And usually when I was least expecting them.
Visiting a foreign place can be transformative and humbling. These feelings and qualities are hard to teach inside the walls of a classroom. Experiencing local customs, speaking the language, meeting new people, eating different foods, being fully present in the moment, learning how to wait, and even unplugging (quite literally) are the kinds of activities that have made me a better, more open-minded person.
Therefore, I feel very privileged that I had these experiences and also was able to share them with students. This past summer I took middle schoolers to Belize with the Landon-Holton-Arms global journey to Maya Village. I also participated in the International Boys’ School Coalition’s action research training program and conference in Cape Town, South Africa, which focused on global education. And, I took boys with me on my annual summer trip to Honduras.
Of all the places I visited, Honduras will always be the most special because it is a part of my own history. This is a place I have been visiting since I was an eighth grader. At the time, I had no idea the country I signed up to visit on a service trip would be such an integral part of my life. Now, every summer, a close friend (and fellow independent school teacher) and I lead a group of kids and adults down to the same place, Our Little Roses, which is a home for girls in San Pedro Sula. This was my 20th year going to Honduras and our ninth summer together as trip leaders. While it’s not a Landon-sponsored trip, many boys have expressed an interest in participating each year and we have gladly let them join us. Over the years, I have had the privilege of accompanying Stone Dreyer ’15, Blake Hani ’15, Sam Krauland ’15, Will Lincoln ’15, Jacques Rebibo ’15, Corbin Sheehan ’15, Skylar Ungerman ’15, Matt Wellington ’15, Griffin Brown ’16, Grant Hani ’16, Max Krause ’16, Thomas Atkins ’19 and Vernon Holleman ’19 on these trips. With each trip, I see that their contributions leave an indelible mark on many of the girls in Honduras. And, likewise, the girls in Honduras leave similarly memorable marks on many of our boys.
Each trip is meaningful in its own way, but as this school year kicks off, I want to reflect on why these global education experiences are an essential part of who I am as a teacher. I remember a presentation I was asked to give last year. I was invited by fifth grade teacher Trish Rhodes to visit the Lower School and speak to the boys about Honduras. The Lower School boys had identified Honduras as a place they’d like to help, and Trish wanted the students to learn more about it. To me, the fact that she wanted the Lower School boys to do something that would contribute to the experiences of Middle and Upper School boys was a really wonderful new partnership between divisions. Naturally, I reached out to the Upper School boys who had participated in the trips over the years to join in this presentation.
Two seniors at the time, Sam Krauland ’15 and Blake Hani ’15, accompanied me to the Lower School. They had gone to Honduras the previous summer. Truthfully, I was a little nervous about this presentation because my day had been crazy and I had not given myself enough time to prepare. But Sam and Blake owned it. They embraced the opportunity to be leaders and they stood in front of the younger boys with big smiles and the patience of seasoned teachers. No doubt, this was something they’d learned to do with ease as upperclassmen at Landon.
As I stood to the side, I remember thinking how impressed I was with them. I taught them as eighth graders, and their growth over the past four years was striking. Sam first came on the trip with us as a rising ninth grader and participated each summer thereafter. Over the years, he developed friendships with many of the girls in Honduras. Blake participated in the trip only once but, true to his strengths, his observations about the experience were remarkably accurate. It was as if he’d been going down there many years.
Sam and Blake explained to the Lower Schoolers why they decided to take time out of their summer to travel to Honduras, what they learned, and what they did. They answered each and every question with unflappability and gratitude. At the end, one fifth grader asked them what I thought was a very mature question: What was the most unexpected part of your experience?
Blake, who had been on the trip just once, did not hesitate. I was expecting the obvious answers — “I wasn’t expecting the humidity,” “I didn’t know what the food would be like,” “I didn’t realize how busy the week would be.” What he said instead was something I won’t soon forget because it was exceptionally perceptive. It reminded me that many of the boys we teach leave us as mature, thoughtful young men, having accomplished so much in their Landon careers. I should never expect the obvious answers from them.
While I do not recall Blake’s words exactly, they went something like this: “I expected to go down there and see all these differences. My friends had been the year before, so I knew what I was getting into. I did see differences. Honduras has a lot of barbed wire, and all the businesses have security guards out front. The place where we go is all girls. And a lot of them are orphans. They live in a poor country. They speak Spanish. So I expected to see all these differences. But instead I realized we have a lot more in common than I ever imagined. We hung out a lot during the week and I learned they love music. And I also learned they want to hang out with their friends. They worry about tests and projects and grades. They practice for performances and they play in big games. They argue sometimes. And they get frustrated at the adults around them for all the rules. But they want to go to college. They have lots of goals just like everyone. I was not expecting to go to Honduras and learn that we are actually mostly alike.”
When Blake said this, I realized this is why global education is so important. These opportunities are experiential education and develop our boys into global citizens. We could have shared this life lesson with Blake every year he was at Landon — that no matter where you go, you can always find similarities and make friends; that no matter how poor a place is, people are still happy; that material things don’t decide your happiness. But the lessons would probably not have resonated until they were experienced. And in order to gain that experience, Blake had to learn to interact with people he did not know. That he was able to make these friends and learn this lesson in the short span of a week is incredible to me. And while I do not know if this observation about having more in common with the children from Honduras than not is something Blake thought about before he articulated it at this presentation, I do know it was an “a-ha!” moment. Not the kind of moment where a boy finally understands how to write a thesis or how to conjugate an irregular verb. This was perhaps more significant because it was a moment when a student understood firsthand, maybe for the first time, that the world is a good place for so many different people from different socio-economic backgrounds and walks of life. We all live in the world together. Seeing the world from this vantage point, face to face with new friends, and sharing it with people who come from a different perspective, is an unforgettable, character-building, and even transformative experience.
So I start this year with a renewed belief in the importance of global citizenship and education. Just as a class or outdoor camp has its place in the list of meaningful summer experiences, immersion is also exceptionally valuable. While traveling far away is not always possible for everyone all the time, it also does not have to be something completely unattainable. My hope is that as we delve into this school year and the learning begins in the many classrooms on our campus, these experiences outside of Landon remain with the boys who participated. Ultimately, I hope more boys consider opportunities for global immersion in their future. They can see and understand firsthand other parts of the world and connect what they’ve learned with real people. These experiences also strengthen our Landon community through the contributions these boys make upon their return. And, of course, the boys who participate carry these memories and lessons with them for life. They are practiced global citizens.