Aspirations heat up during summer

Jenna Spinks ’07 woke up very early and rode her bike into the village of Phuoc My Trung. She was on her way to the local market, where she and the cook for the Putney Student Travel trip to Vietnam picked out ingredients for that night’s dinner.

“It was somewhat startling when [the cook] went up to one man who was sitting in a booth with some chickens, picked up a chicken by one foot and held it up to me so that I could inspect it,” Spinks said.

“After patting the chicken several times, with the chicken squawking loudly, she decided that it was adequate and negotiated a price with the vendor — this was to be our dinner.”

Spinks is among 15 percent of upper school students who attend programs abroad with or without school sponsorship, according to statistics compiled by Spanish teacher Dianne Tritica.

Independent trips sponsored by outside organizations allow students to travel internationally for reasons other than improving their proficiency in a foreign language. Instead, students can focus on more intense community service or learning to better understand a country and its culture.

Compared to school-chaperoned trips, they are longer and take the student out of their regular environment and away from familiar faces. These trips are more intense and require students to pay more, be more proficient in the language and have more independence and maturity.

Through Putney Student Travel, which organizes summer trips for high school students around the country, Spinks went to Tanzania in 2005 and Vietnam in 2006. In both locations, she and others in her group assisted in the construction of homes, schools and hospitals.

In Tanzania, Spinks learned Swahili from the Ilkiding’a Primary School’s teachers, went on field trips to places like Mt. Kilimanjaro and went on a safari, something she had wanted to do for years and was part of the basis for her choosing Putney.

“Not everybody’s interest falls into the domain of what we offer,” French teacher and Director of Financial Aid Geoffrey Bird said. “I think it’s perfectly normal that some kids want to go and be independent of the school. They want to meet new people who are different from them, who come from different parts of the world and perhaps from different economic levels.”

But Bird cautions against simply choosing any random program.

“There are huge numbers of programs all over the world that promise all sorts of things. Whether they follow through on those promises is another thing. You have to do your homework.”

Another aspect to take into consideration is “if the student is mature enough to handle the social expectations and the cultural expectations of the target country,” Foreign Language Department Chair Javier Zaragoza said. “[Otherwise], it is not going to be comfortable for that student.”

Some students do not benefit in the way they expected. Kate Sacks ’07, who went on a trip to Paris sponsored by the Oxbridge Program in 2006, took classes to improve her French skills. She took classes on the avant-garde that were conducted entirely in French, but also a class in international law that was in English.

“Overall, I think that my French didn’t really get any better because lots of the kids didn’t speak French, and one of my classes was in English, so I didn’t speak that much French either,” Sacks said. “All we did was take field trips to random museums and part of Paris.” Sacks felt that, as a whole, she did make some good friends, but the trip was not as rewarding as she had hoped.

Natasha Phillips ’07, who went on the same trip, had a different experience.

“It was great,” she said. “I learned a lot, and they really pushed us to go out and explore the city on our own.”

“For me, you should be thinking of putting yourself in a different environment that makes you understand another part of the world,” Bird said. “It doesn’t have to be language, but you should be broadening your perspective. That’s the only reason to do something like that. Unless you are willing to make it a little hard on yourself, I don’t think you are going to get much out of it.”

Taking more than one trip allowed Spinks to compare Tanzanian society not only to that of the United States, but also Vietnam’s.

“I didn’t dislike the trip, but having been on the Tanzania trip, where we literally built an entire house ourselves, it was frustrating because the local construction workers didn’t think Americans, girls especially, would want to get their hands dirty and build,” Spinks said.

Zee Kim ’07 participated in the Global Leadership Program’s South Africa Chapter (formerly known as the Summer Academy at Cape Town) in 2006. Groups of students went into townships and did community service at shelters for battered and abused women and children. Helping in any way they could, they painted murals, played with the children, brought hard to find materials like crayons and paper and helped mothers make the bags that are their sole source of livelihood. Additionally, students took classes on topics relating to South Africa including a course on Xhosa, the regional click language.

“The South Africa trip is fabulous because it really focuses on understanding the culture there,” Bird said. “They are getting young Americans to look at another country’s attempt to solve social problems, another country’s history. That’s a worthy thing to do. I think everybody, every child, should have an opportunity at some point in their lives to see the world as other people see it. That’s the real reason we want you to study a foreign language. It’s not so you can order French food. It’s a chance for you to look at another society, another society’s literature, their patterns of thinking, their political literature.”
In the end, Tritica feels it is crucial to experience other countries firsthand.

“It is the only way to have first-hand experiences with another culture and another language, she said.  Ideally, the year abroad program enables one to become fluent, but any time abroad is beneficial.  Nothing replaces time away.  The time invested abroad reinforces, broadens and deepens what the classroom, books, movies, museums and lectures present to us, but nothing else can replace the actual ‘being there.’”