This summer nearly 40 students, parents and Grand Junction High School (GJHS) faculty embarked on a trip to Kenya designed to provide a service-learning experience, new cultural interactions, in-person experiences with the unique climate and ecology and for most, a once-in-a-lifetime photo safari in the African savanna. The trip was organized by GJHS Spanish teacher, Sarah Henao who also owns SEI Travel Agency.
Since 2010 Dr. Justin Whiteford, PhD. has been taking educational trips with students and parent chaperones to places far and wide. Since 2007 he has taught a variety of Social Studies classes at GJHS. This year’s travel, was no exception. Regarding the value of these experiences he said, "empirical knowledge - the in-person experiences - are so much more beneficial for the learner than any other method of instruction." With a newly restructured partnership between Colorado Mesa University (CMU) andl GJHS, students can earn college credit for taking these trips and recording their experiences in travel journals. Dr. Holly Oberle, associate Professor in the Political Science department at CMU, joined this trip to provide perspective from a well-traveled viewpoint. This one-of-a-kind program is a true pioneering effort between the GJHS and CMU, and one that is expected to be ongoing for a long time to come. She explained that her extensive travel, study and teaching abroad has shown her that, “first hand experience is so much better for lasting learning than the pages of a book."
Some of the travelers arrived in Kenya ahead of others due to airline worker strikes in Belgium. The students who arrived later were delayed in a Nigerian airport along the way, but it eventually got sorted out and the group got to be together most of the scheduled time in Kenya.
The first group to arrive in Kenya delivered about 150 pounds of books to a school and began having some interaction with locals to learn more about Kenyan culture and daily living. Once the full group was together Professor Oberle shared some insights that students and parents found eye-opening. Sometimes these "cultural experiences" are a combination of pageantry and tourist entertainment that may give a diluted view of the culture being visited but overall this kind of experience is truly a great place to begin for high school students.
Regarding the cultural experience students made the following statements in their Journals:
"The best reason to visit Africa, the people. Their kindness and generosity is remarkable! We have a lot to learn from them."
"After visiting Africa, I see that we are more alike than different."
"I guess I don't appreciate the things I have. They have so little and yet value it so much."
"It's mind-blowing to visit the birthplace of humanity. Our history in the USA is a few hundred years. Their history is hundreds and even thousands of years. for a student, that's a big difference."
"I don't think any student can fully appreciate being and American unless they see the world and have something to compare it to. I was so naive."
"Some of these families make less than a dollar a day but seen so happy. We as a nation seem distracted and disconnected from what makes people happy."
"This was a short trip but I really can see things differently now. I have a lot of work to do on myself and my priorities."
"After this, I realize I need to travel more....."
Dr. Oberle shared a similar experience from a school trip to Spain in her undergrad time at Knox College, where she first caught the "travel bug". Since then, she's been learning and teaching through cultural experiences far and wide. Since that first trip to Spain she has lived in 6 different countries, taught extensively overseas and traveled to over 90 nations!!
The Masai village was one stop along the way that students seemed to really enjoy and to "gel" with the locals as they got to know each other a little bit. One of the traditions among the Masai people is for young men to face each other and jump as high as possible in unison. Each jumper tried to outdo the other in height. It became a friendly way to challenge each other and the students seemed to really enjoy the experience.
Following the visit to the Masai Mara village the group took two different trips into national parks where they could photograph and watch an immense variety of wildlife in their natural habitat.
One student, Jameson Whiteford, said that his experience seeing these animals up close, in the wild was so much more fulfilling than seeing any of them in a zoo or wildlife documentary. He continued, "Seeing how people live out their lives in cement houses, dense population and working hard every day for everything they need just to live, was humbling. It made me appreciate much more how good we have it in the USA.
Few places on earth can begin to rival the biodiversity of this region of Africa.
Some of these students who were itching to go somewhere else for college are now excited to consider CMU as their next step after high school, following their experiences on this trip. Photos and stories still don't seem to adequately share the impact of this adventure on those who were there.
As this partnership progresses it is anticipated that there may be some opportunities for select college students to join the GJHS trips and perhaps other CMU faculty too. There may also be trips planned by CMU for their students to have these same kinds of experiences in international culture, biodiversity, geologic and geographic studies and to create their own memories to last a lifetime.
Students and parents alike agree that this newly crafted partnership between CMU and GJHS brought an added element of effective learning to the trip. Dr. Holly Oberle, professor of International Political Science shared insights from her many years living and teaching internationally. CMU president John Marshall enthusiastically supports these efforts.