Student Journey Series: Ilana Kegel

Each month, the Student Journeys Series features a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Ilana Kegel. Ilana is a Marketing Manager at Walmart working on digital media targeting and planning. She works to optimize marketing expenditures to ensure efficient and impactful media delivery. She recently graduated with her MBA from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business – Go Blue!

Global travel has been a part of my life and my sense of self since I was 6 months old. My parents are South African – born and bred – and moved to Seattle in the 1970s, leaving behind their parents, my dad’s sister, and many cousins. Because our family was spread across the globe, and my parents were big fans of travel, international trips have been a regular event and make up some of my fondest memories since I was six months old. I am very lucky to have been brought up with this privileged exposure to all the world has to offer. It is energizing and mind-opening and had me hooked.

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I made a traditional Senegalese meal for my friends and family and taught them how to eat with their hands.

Having lived and loved this travel-filled youth, I have since sought out pretty much every global education opportunity that passed my way. In 7th grade, I traveled to Russia for two weeks with a group of fellow middle school students from Lakeside School. In high school, I spent a month in Germany with a language immersion program and home stay through Concordia Language Villages. In college, I chose my major based largely on my desire to travel more (in addition to a love of international relations and a goal of having a positive impact on the world). This major led me to study abroad in Senegal for a semester with the School for International Training and to intern with a hospital in Tanzania for a summer. Most recently in my MBA program at the University of Michigan, I spent a week in Ethiopia conducting research for a class consulting project. These experiences have been highly varied, and all entirely worth it.

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Making chocolate chip cookies with slightly different ingredients and tools for my host family. They were not fans…

Global travel is a gift to the individual who is lucky enough to experience it, and it’s a gift to those he or she interacts with. With travel, you are exposed to people, places, foods, smells, modes of transportation, communication styles, lifestyles, life values, and many more facets of a reality that is different from your own. When you’re in the minority on each of these facets, you can’t as easily write everyone else off as crazy; you have to – if even for a second – consider that you might be the crazy one. Experiencing these differences, understanding them, accepting them as valid, and forcing yourself to live them teaches you empathy.

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One of my Senegalese hosts taught me how to carry a baby. It’s not as easy as it looks!

The ability to consider others’ approaches as valid and to be open to fully understanding before judging is an incredibly important skill. As we move faster and faster toward an age dependent on innovation, the ability to see the world through someone else’s perspective will become ever more critical. Not to mention that empathy makes us more compassionate and thoughtful citizens. Global education is one of the most effective ways to give yourself, and others you interact with, this gift.

So, you might wonder where all this travel landed me. After many twists and turns, my early dreams of working for the Foreign Service in a new country every two years, or for a non-profit in West Africa, meandered to my current reality: working in Marketing for Walmart. It turns out that empathy is also a really important skill in marketing. I love thinking about our customers and the communication styles that will speak to them. Just goes to show, you never know where your travels will take you or what they’ll teach you, but you can have no doubt that you will learn and grow. Here are a few take-aways from my travels that I think of often:

1)   It’s okay to just sit. In Senegal, one of my biggest challenges was to be comfortable with the significant amount of time we spent sitting without talking or doing anything. It was a completely foreign concept for me and was a fascinating reflection point.

2)   A sense of urgency is not a universal concept and you have to understand and respect how others view time. Cultures place varying emphasis on promptness. It’s always important to learn the unwritten rules that you are working within, whether they speak to time or something else.

3)   Often when things seem chaotic, there is an underlying system and organization, you just haven’t yet learned to read the patterns. It’s always important to listen and learn first, before assuming you understand. You might be surprised by the details you can miss.

4)   Those closest to the issues usually come up with the best solutions to the problem.  I had been passionate about pursuing a career in development abroad, but my travel experiences opened my eyes to the innovations and ingenuity of the locals in Senegal and Tanzania that were solving their own problems in more sustainable ways than I could provide. It’s always best to get as close to the core problem as you can and ask those living it for their ideas of solutions.

5)   It’s a big world – keep your perspective. It’s always helpful to take a step back from your current frustrations and challenges and remember you are a small player in a big world with a lot left to learn.

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My husband and I enjoying some sun and music at a Head and the Heart concert.

Transformative Travel Plus

Last summer, I sat in Pioneer Square with Jennifer Spatz, founder and owner of Global Family Travels. Though we had met before, that day in the sun on the steps of Occidental Park confirmed our intention to work together. Over the next couple of months, we were joined by Lisa Merrill and Jennifer Geist to co-create a program we call Transformative Travel IMG_1384Plus, or TTP. I am inspired by the way our different skills and experience came together; a travel professional, a photojournalist, a digital storyteller and a global education facilitator each bring our expertise to this unique and fascinating project.

As Jennifer Spatz said in the recent article on her in Parentmap magazine, she created Global Family Travels when she experienced a void in the travel industry: meaningful service and immersive programs for families. All of her programs are designed for families, and for this particular experience in Nicaragua, we added elements before and after the travel itself to enhance the learning for all participants. As we worked on this project together, we found ourselves collaborating at a high level and ever more excited about the opportunities this kind of experience will provide for families. Once we met the families who had signed up, it all became that much more real, and we plunged into the first workshop with enthusiasm.

unnamed-1The twelve of us (five adults and five teenagers participants plus Jennifer and me), met at the Bellevue Impact Hub which, as a coworking space for people creating social impact, was a fitting spot. We began with an opening exercise and a review of the goals of the workshop, and then dove into the meat of the educational session. We each created a cultural self portrait, discussed what we had chosen to represent ourselves culturally, and had so much fun learning about each other. After a break, we played a game called Building Utopia, created by Jennifer Klein of World Leadership School. In the exercise, participants work in groups to put the United Nations 6797e66c-93cf-4b8c-82cc-16c918628cf7Sustainable Development Goals in order of which issue they would solve first. After fifteen minutes, we walked around the room and visited the other groups’ work and asked them to explain their thinking process and choices. In our final debrief, we all agreed it was much better to try and solve the impossible puzzle together than it would have been to do alone, and we loved seeing how each unnamedgroup came up with a different solution, all of which were correct.

We closed out the evening with a “Nicaraguan Nugget” — this time an overview of the country’s history — and a closing exercise. I came away with an even greater enthusiasm for this kind of experiential learning and a new excitement for how much fun it was to work with a multi-generational group. I can’t wait for the next workshop!

Place-Based Education

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Welcome sign in giant hotel aquarium

Last week, I had the great privilege to attend the 11th annual institute run by the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN), of which I was recently elected chair of the board. ISEEN is doing some of the most innovative and exciting work in education today, and I have shared much of it in other posts. This time was no exception.

What made it so great? Well, yes, we were in Hawaii. In January. That helped.

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ISEEN Educators on a Hike above Honolulu

We had chosen the theme of Place-Based Education a number of years ago, and Hawaii was the perfect place to explore that theme. The institute was hosted by Punahou School and Iolani School, both of which had exemplary programs to share. Participants heard inspiring talks by the Heads of each school focusing on innovation and change at every level. We learned how K-12 classes use their campus and immediate surroundings to teach a myriad of concepts through active learning. We also had the opportunity to spend an entire day at Kualoa Ranch, where their education staff taught us about flora and fauna, repurposing old fish ponds for oyster aquaculture, hiking through several ecosystems to get a better view of the island, and contributing to stream restoration. The ranch is an intriguing model of land use: the family who has owned the land for generations created an educational enterprise to serve the dual goals of economic viability and celebration of Native Hawaiian culture.

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An ancient fishpond repurposed at Kualoa Ranch

Native Hawaiian culture was joyfully honored throughout our visit. We were welcomed with ceremony including ancient chants and contemporary songs; we took workshops in hula, lei and poi making; we learned about the worldwide voyage called Hokulea raising awareness and funds for the most vulnerable Hawaiians; and were invited to be full participants in everything we witnessed. It felt like a true blessing to be in the presence of people living out their spiritual traditions and connecting to the land in such meaningful ways.

In a more robust manner than ever, the ISEEN institute practiced the principles we so strongly believe in: learning by doing, staying connected to the real world, modeling Kolb’s Cycle of Experience/Reflect/Evaluate/Act (and even offering a workshop led by David and Alice Kolb themselves!), throughout the institute. These few days strengthened our commitment to experiential education. We believe this theory and the practices it embraces, including Design Thinking, Project-Based Learning, and Mindfulness in Education, are on the forefront of innovation in education. With so much content at our fingertips (literally), we must explore ways to make connections, think critically, and involve our whole selves in the learning process, or we just may cease to be relevant.

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Round table sharing of school programs

All 120 educators from the US, Canada, Korea, Australia, and the UK went back to their homes and school communities ready to put what we learned to good use. Though it may not be as easy in our home communities to connect to the land and the first people who populated it as it was in Hawaii, we have pledged to do so. I invite you to ask yourself: who lived in your neighborhood before the colonizers? What relationship did they have to the land and what can you learn from them? Please consider joining us next year when Hawken School in Cleveland hosts the institute and we continue our exploration of Place-Based Education in an urban setting.  Aloha!

Student Journey Series: Abby Nathanson

Each month, the Student Journeys Series features a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Abby Nathanson. Abby is a yoga teacher and the Founder and Program Director of Engaging People in Change (EPIC), a leadership group for rural New York high school students.

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This is my “on occasion, they just pay me to do this” face.

At the moment, I am 24 years old and the last time I spent more than nine consecutive months in the United States, I was 18. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to volunteer, intern, study, work, and wander in different contexts and countries, in ways that were structured and unstructured, spur-of-the-moment and long-awaited. Experiential learning and global citizenship have gone from holding space in my life only as experiences on programs and trips, to becoming indistinguishable from how I think and operate in the world. I am a sociologist, and every day is a trip – learning through experience is the only way I know how to live.

I’m grateful that these principles were modeled and opened up to me from a young age. As a high school student, I spent four weeks in rural Peru with Lakeside School’s Global Service Learning (GSL) program. I was traveling with a group of classmates on a well-established program and staying with a family who had hosted countless young foreigners; certainly, my experience had its share of hand-holding and facilitation. Regardless, there is a quality of being in the unfamiliar – of feeling totally and completely out of your element, knowing that your own home landscape is a day’s journey away – that no amount of pre-trip orientation or program development could ever touch, nor would they try to. For the first time in my life, I felt confused for significant portions of my waking hours. I was learning a new language while I learned a new culture while I learned, above all, about myself and the spaces I knew as home. Through reflection- facilitated both by group leaders in circle time and by the ease and expanse of hours spent doing what Americans call “nothing” – I practiced the beautiful skill of adapting experiences into knowledge, drawing from the mundane and simple to arrive at complex, globally-significant, world-changing notions.

I was sitting at a waterfall in rural Panamá when I started chatting with this family, who quickly adopted me.

I was sitting at a waterfall in rural Panamá when I started chatting with this family, who quickly adopted me.

I was hooked and have continued to snatch every opportunity to continue to be in the unfamiliar. The morning after I finished my first year of college, I was on a plane to Ecuador with a thin outline of a plan. I harvested pineapple on a Hare Krishna farm in the Amazon, bounced on a milk truck through the cloud forest, and lived with a family in an indigenous community while helping to develop an arts and culture summer camp. Partially, I was testing myself with that trip. I thought that if I went on a summer adventure, I wouldn’t need to rush to study abroad the following school year. Yet one month in to the trip, I was at the cyber café submitting an application to spend my sophomore spring semester of college abroad. Travel wasn’t just a phase; I knew it was deeply important to how I was going to pursue my college education. I went on to spend a semester on the School for International Training (SIT)’s Social Pluralism and Development program in Cameroon, in which I lived with host families in four different regions and researched witchcraft as a tool of resistance in the rainforest. My following semester, I started out in SIT’s Emerging Identities in North Africa program in Tunisia, was politically “evacuated” due to France, and ultimately withdrew from the program to Couch Surf around Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Finally, I spent a summer with Learning Enterprises’ pilot English-teaching program in India, where I wrote a curriculum for volunteers and host families to bridge cultural gaps.

Seven years after staying in her home for three weeks with Lakeside School’s Global Service Learning program, I was reunited with Adela in Ollantaytambo, Peru, when I passed through town for one night on a trip I was leading.

Seven years after staying in her home for three weeks with my GSL program, I was reunited with Adela in Ollantaytambo, Peru, when I passed through town for one night on a trip I was leading.

These experiences were formative, transformative, and a bit destructive. I questioned everything I knew how to question, repeatedly, in multiple languages and alongside enormous quantities of omelets, baguettes, white rice, potatoes, and corn tortillas. The fact that I needed to be whisked away to the Andes as a high school student and subsequently to several other foreign countries in order to know places that were not designed for me is, of course, a function of the various privileges I benefit from as a well-educated and financially stable white American. I continue to contend with that reality while pursuing problematic yet beneficial opportunities; I also hope to be a part of re-imagining how educational and travel systems will grow to be more intersectional, mindful, and oriented towards social justice.

Students from the New York cities of Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, and Middletown enjoying Molly Moon’s ice cream on Capitol Hill in Seattle.

Students from the New York cities of Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, and Middletown enjoying Molly Moon’s ice cream on Capitol Hill in Seattle.

Experiences happen everywhere and realities are not held together by the nation-state boundaries. After graduating from college, I started a program called Coast-to-Coast Connections, which takes high school students from small cities in New York State to Seattle, Washington to study social justice. Keeping the experience within the United States has several benefits, especially that it’s an inter-cultural opportunity that’s accessible to undocumented students. I have also lead trips globally on Lakeside School’s GSL program to Senegal and Nicaragua, and with Walking Tree Travel’s Service Adventure program to Peru. Being a trip leader is a comically difficult job, but it is also precious and humbling. I love bearing witness and even facilitating, moment-to-moment, as the next generation of thinkers and doers push themselves to explore new limits, find new strengths, and feel thoroughly lost, annoyed, hopeful, and energized. Learning through experience and embracing the unfamiliar as an essential part of growth are tremendously valuable pedagogies – and I am grateful to hold these ideals close as I move through the world as a wanderer, educator, scholar, and friend.  

Blog Year in Review

Students reflecting on their journey

This time of year lends itself to reflection. As I considered my customary examination of highlights, low lights, and lessons learned in 2015, I decided to reread my blog posts for the year to see what they might tell me about my year. It was fun to relive some of my adventures and see what I was puzzling over as the months unfolded. A couple of themes emerged.

The first pattern I noticed was that I wrote most often about school initiatives. This makes sense, as I work primarily with schools. I continue to be impressed by school leaders who are embracing concepts and practices such as experiential education, design thinking, and global-local connections; paying attention to risk management, program assessment and staff training; and creating meaningful overseas partnerships. I love working with schools, and I am encouraged and inspired by educators who seek improvement through both strategic planning and new initiatives. Serving on the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) and the Global Education Benchmark Group (GEBG) boards continues to shape my thinking, provide support for my work, and add meaning to all of my consulting partnerships.

Students from Trinity School (NYC) doing service work in New Orleans

Students from Trinity School (NYC) doing service work in New Orleans

Travel opened my mind and heart this year, whether to places far away like Namibia, South Africa and Peru, middle distances such as Arkansas, Santa Fe and New Orleans, or nearby in Victoria, B.C. and Olympia, WA. Each experience made me think about the world in new and interesting ways, and the people I met reinforced my belief in both our similarities and our differences. I returned home stimulated by new landscapes, engaged in new relationships, and brimming with new ideas for collaborative global and experiential education.

Another theme that emerged as I examined the posts is the importance of art and culture in all of their rich expression. My focus on visual art through Exhibit Be, theater for Little Bee, and music for OneBeat underscores my belief in the power of art to connect, to inspire, and to heal. I noticed that I invited my readers to engage with the world through art and also through political movements like Black Lives Matter, world events like the devastating Nepal earthquake, and then I encouraged heeding the call to an interior life (such as unplugging from technology and connecting with a group like Seasons of the Soul) to stay centered and able to both bear and help ease the pain in our world.

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Bring it on 2016: I’m ready!

As I look back, I realize how grateful I am for the kind of work I do and how much I enjoyed writing about it. I appreciate the weekly practice of reflection and putting into words what I am thinking about, engaged in, puzzled by. The greatest joy the blog brought me this year came in the form of my twelve guest bloggers: former students and program associates who wrote about how global travel and experiential education have influenced their lives. Their testimonials reinforce my career choice and provide motivation to continue working on behalf of global and experiential education. Bring on 2016: I’m ready!