Student Journey Series: Dylan Holmes

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 Dylan Holmes. Dylan currently lives in Melbourne, Australia where he works as a product manager for a software startup. 

IMG_0922I was first introduced to global travel at 10 years old when my family and I spent a month in Italy and France. I visited Canada a number of times before then but, as a native of Seattle, Washington, it feels odd for me to call these “global” experiences. You don’t absorb much global culture while sitting in the back seat of a minivan during the four hour drive to the Canadian border. In any case, my time in Italy and France was marked by a series of adventures: climbing to the top of bell towers throughout Italy, playing chess against friendly strangers in Cinque Terre, perfecting my bocce game in a small town in Provence, France, and more. We saw all the typical tourist sights as well, but what has stuck with me from that trip are the mundane yet irreplaceable memories.

I sought more of these experiences throughout my educational life. I visited Costa Rica and Peru through global service learning programs during my middle and high school years. Was I mentally prepared for these trips? Doubtful. Were they worth it? Absolutely. Well, that’s probably the wrong question. The right question is: who would I be without these trips? They had such a profound impact on my life trajectory that it is hard to know.

IMG_0921 I respected my education before my trip to Peru, but my homestay in Ollantaytambo, Peru made me realize that I was taking too much of it for granted. My host family was hosting more than just me during my stay. They were also housing a five year old boy from a remote Andean village that only spoke Quechua. His reason for being there? Getting a quality education. His parents were hours away, he was surrounded by people that didn’t speak his language, and yet he was still there because Ollantaytambo had the best school for miles. And my host family was sacrificing a great deal to make sure this little boy could learn. He was a real part of the family – receiving food, housing, and love day in and day out. I was floored.

We were only in Ollanta for two weeks and I doubt I left a lasting imprint on the town or my host family. I do know, however, that the consistent presence of those global education programs in Ollantaytambo has led to fundamental changes in the region. Years after their original visit, students have gone back to Ollantaytambo to start nonprofits and help community organizations. Some of these initiatives are still running to this day.

IMG_0923Global travel and learning have been my top priorities since my early brush with global education. I studied abroad in Seville, Spain; became fluent in Spanish; foolishly let my Spanish skills rust; jumped into a career in software startups (for which I had no experience nor training coming out of college); absorbed the startup experience for four years in Seattle; and moved to Melbourne, Australia six months ago to become a product manager for yet another software startup.

Everyone that participates in a global education program takes something different away from it. I found a bit of extra motivation towards my education… and developed an even stronger love for travel. I’m on the other side of the world because of it. Now — I’m not trying to gloss over the difficult and trying moments. There are too many of those to count, but they have all been worth it.

Student Journey Series: Alex Krengel

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 Alex Krengel. Alex grew up in Seattle where he learned to love the outdoors and developed his taste for adventure. During college he worked as an EMT and become interested in health care, studying biology and getting a business degree with an emphasis in economics. He used his EMT training to travel on a number of medical missions, including a three-month trip to Laos and Vietnam following college graduation. Exposure to poor health outcomes in underdeveloped communities spurred Alex to get a Master’s of Public Health. He is now an operations consultant for Seattle Children’s, where he works on issues impacting children’s access to specialty care in the Northwest. His love for travel continues and he captures many of his memories through his photography.

Patients wrap around one of the school houses

Patients wrap around one of the school houses. Some have traveled for days and now have to wait hours.

In the back of a troop transport we bumped along a rocky mountainside road, fording four rivers that intersected our path. Outside of Santa Fe, Panama, a group of American doctors and EMTs finally reached our destination. On the only arid section of land in the middle of this lush jungle, a playfield and three concrete school houses signaled the center of a town, a spattering of huts scattered for miles under the surrounding canopy. I found myself on this adventure in this mysterious place by design, having sought a means to “help” or to “make an impact” during college. It was 2010 and my closest friends and I were to run a medical clinic for five days in the middle of—seemingly—nowhere, with the guidance of one Panamanian and two American doctors.

We set up shop, a production line churning out medical screenings. In the first morning we saw more than two hundred patients, mostly mothers and their young children. That afternoon, under the heat of the sun, the men came in from work and visited the clinic, clearly dehydrated, they complained of sore backs and chronic coughs. The next day the heat went from ninety-two to ninety-eight degrees and we scrambled to find shade for the growing procession. Unable to hide everyone from the sun, we wrapped mothers—many pregnant—and their young children around the school house, under its metal eaves. Throughout this process I engaged with many of them. Curious how far they had come, and for what, while ensuring they were feeling well.

I learned that a radio broadcast had gotten word to villages up to one hundred miles away in the weeks leading up to our arrival. Some, in broken or translated Spanish, reported traveling for an entire week on bare feet to find us and see their first ever doctor. This was a shocking revelation to me—that a lack of access to medical care could span not just swaths of sparsely populated land, but generations. In my quest to find purpose, I had chosen to sacrifice my time to provide for others something I had thought to be of value. And clearly the group of us was doing just that.

I kept on with this belief until day three, when one native woman, sapped from seven unimaginable days walking under the sun, presented her fainting infant to us. I immediately scoured the village for a minister and gathered with the doctors to pray for and nourish this mother and her child. In the following moments, which I remember vividly, I saw the fear and anguish that crept through her.

There was no shared language to communicate, but the rituals of prayer and healing that were administered soothed these fears. In one instant, there was a deep human connection forged over the life of a child, our cultural differences disintegrating to deal with what mattered most. This was juxtaposed by the current of thought that our engagement with this community as “helpers,” had actually led to the predicament we found ourselves in. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a doctor, the help we had brought, had caused something potentially devastating.

My friend Nick and I tucked into the entrance of a cave at the top of the granary ruins in Ollantaytambo.

My friend Nick and I tucked into the entrance of a cave at the top of the granary ruins in Ollantaytambo.

I began traveling as a way to challenge my understanding of the world. As a seventeen year-old, I ventured with a group of classmates to Ollantaytambo, Peru. In the middle of the Valle Sagrado we made our way around town, getting to know some of the locals. It was hard at the outset, my first time out of the country, nothing in common with my new neighbors but a second language — Spanish (Quechua is the primary language in much of the Andes). But, immersed in their culture, we learned an immense amount about their rich history. I remember speaking with the old owner of a new pizza parlor who had spent the first three-quarters of his life as a farmer but recently opened this restaurant to cater to the growing tourism coming into their small town. My friend and I, infatuated with the kitchen staff, became obsessed with the food and competed over who could eat the hotter ají (in an insurmountable feat, he also managed to put down 13 banana pancakes one morning).

While we continued to immerse ourselves, we debriefed over the contrasts of our lives to theirs. The local economy and history, belief systems, life opportunities, technology… the list grew and grew as we went around one-by-one describing the obvious things that didn’t seem like home to each of us.

These ancient Inca granaries sit precariously on a hill above Ollantaytambo, Peru. In 2005 they were the focus of my first project, a trail which future students completed only a few years ago.

These ancient Inca granaries were the focus of my first project, a trail which future students completed only a few years ago.

What struck me the most was the basic desire to enjoy life, to make friends, to have a family, to be somebody. It was easy to point to the differences in amenities or language, but what I found striking were the similarities that I was able to draw between myself and these people I was meeting. It was because of these similarities that this trip became worthwhile. I learned to widen and pivot my perspective, to deepen my empathy and experience the differences between not dissimilar people, but similar people living different lives.


My friend Guram and I take a tour of the country of Georgia’s newest and most elaborate church, Tsminda Sameba.

Because of this trip to Peru I sought many more. To taste the food, to see the sights, but mostly to experience the culture. To me, the essence of a culture is distilled in the way its people are motivated to achieve their goals and confront life’s challenges. I see every trip as an opportunity to learn a lesson, to reflect on my life with a different perspective and to take those lessons with me when I return home. In Laos, a man who shared my name and age told his story to me and a thousand other people about losing both of his legs to unexploded ordnance dropped on his farm before his birth, during the Vietnam War. Realizing it was a matter of luck that I could have been him instead of myself, I was touched by his tenor and motivation in the face of his experience. I was reminded of the preciousness of each of our lives and, much like my experience in Panama, how our decisions to act can have both positive and negative consequences. I have come to appreciate travel as an opportunity to learn and share, not to help.

I have learned through travel that it is only through exposing myself to great difference that I learned to find comfort in the existence of similarities I share with others. I have little doubt in my mind that it is only because of my early experiences traveling that I have become the person I am today, interested in making a difference by learning about people and the issues their communities face in living healthy lives. As a result, I’ve achieved degrees in biology, business and public health and I spend my weeks finding ways to improve access to healthcare for children in the Northwest.

A man and child brazenly cross the street near Sword Lake, in a rare break in the constant swarm of motorbikes. Rush hour in Ha Noi is a real culture shock.

A man and child brazenly cross the street near Sword Lake, in a rare break in the constant swarm of motorbikes. Rush hour in Ha Noi is a real culture shock.

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.

2015 - 2016 signpost in a desert road background

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!



The purpose of tradition. It ties us irrevocably to the past and to our ancestors. But at the same time, it reaches forward, connecting us to the future and to our descendants — so long as they remember and honor the traditions.”

-From Mama Namibia

unnamed-1I recently returned from Namibia where I helped a colleague from Riverdale Country School prepare for an upcoming student travel experience. We hired a local company, Indaba Tours to take us to a number of different sites in the country so we could create an itinerary that matched Riverdale’s goals for their students. Namibia is a vast, arid country with a kind of empty beauty that is hard to describe. Since we covered a lot of ground in a short time, many hours each day were spent staring out the window watching a strange and beautiful landscape go by. I loved the wide open spaces and the way my mind wandered through them. I was reading a book called Mama Namibia about the early twentieth century war between Germany and the native Damara people, and I was struck by how much has changed in the past 100 years and yet how some things are still the same. After a brief period of colonization by Germany, Namibia was ruled for many years by South Africa before gaining its independence in 1990. It exports minerals and meat, and imports virtually everything else since very little will grow there. I found myself drawn in by the landscape, fascinated by the history, interested in the people, and enthusiastic about the many educational opportunities afforded to students.

unnamedThe exploratory trip allowed us to look through a few different lenses as we thought about how students might engage and what they could learn in a two-week excursion. We had the chance to visit two different and equally fascinating research stations in the country. The first was the Gobabeb Desert Research Station, started in 1960 by an Austrian entymologist who wanted to know how a certain beetle survived in the dunes. Since that time, it has attracted scientists from all over the world who study weather patterns, climate change and the adaptive behaviors of plants, insects, mammals, and humans in the harshly beautiful terrain. It was fascinating to see all of the different projects that were happening there: from weather stations measuring wind speed, rainfall, fog and temperature; to how the plants adapted defense mechanisms and how the Topnaar people used those plants to help them survive the tough conditions. Climbing on the dunes, overlooking sand-covered hills, watching the wind erase my footprints, sharing space with a couple of birds and a few beetles, and knowing there were many other creatures hidden from view was an exhilarating and humbling experience.

unnamed-2The second research station we visited was the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Here, a dedicated international staff of researchers, educators and interns in fields including genetics, animal behavior, human biology, ecology and anthropology, come together to save the endangered cheetah, the fastest animal on the planet and yet one more fragile than it seems. The center studies human-wildlife interaction, and works with local farmers to find ways to protect their livestock and the cheetah, focusing on the sustainability of the entire ecosystem. The animals that are penned there are usually unable to return to the wild for a variety of reasons, so they provide the opportunity to study cheetah behavior. It was thrilling to watch the cheetah run, have the opportunity to feed them and observe them closely, gain a new respect for their tenuous place in the survival chain, and meet the inspiring people who are dedicated to helping them survive.

unnamed-3In addition to the research scientists, we met wonderful people in a few different educational settings. From Oritjitambo, a Himba tribal school, to the International School of Walvis Bay, to an underserved public school in Windhoek, to the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, we saw a wide range of schools and got a taste for some of the exciting new developments as well as issues facing Namibia and other parts of the continent. Getting even a small glimpse of such a vast and fascinating country opened my eyes to a new part of the world. I am excited for the students of Riverdale Country School who will be able to spend more time there and participate in both scientific and educational research projects next spring.

Student Journey Series: Reilly Bench

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 Reilly Bench. 

Enjoying a Mariner’s baseball game with my older brother Connor.

Enjoying a Mariner’s baseball game with my older brother Connor.

I am a very proud Seattleite – my friends at Notre Dame often refer to me as “Seattle,” because I won’t shut up about it. Despite my love for home, I always keep my ear to the ground for interesting ways to leave – at least for a bit. My first opportunity to leave the country (besides Canada), was when I traveled with my mother and brother to Antigua, Guatemala to spend some time with a family we knew from Seattle. Being 11, and deprived of video games as a child, I was pretty attached to my friend’s Gameboy during that trip. Unfortunately, this isn’t the way to travel or experience new cultures.

It wasn’t until several years later that I really caught the travel bug while at the Makah Indian Reservation on the Olympic Peninsula. The Lakeside Middle School GSL program was founded when I was in seventh grade, and I decided, with the urging of a good friend, to put in an application. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Over the two weeks we spent on the reservation, we learned about the native wildlife and vegetation; we fought valiantly to remove some invasive blackberries, (escaping with only a few scratches); we discussed the history of the tribe with its elders; we marveled at the enormous grey whale skeleton that dominates the main room of the reservation museum; and we ate fry bread and discussed the future of the tribe with some kids our own age. Through that trip, I realized that tradition is being threatened all over the world, and we are often dismissing or misunderstanding its value. Of course, not all tradition is good, but I know that it is difficult to determine that without getting as close to it as we can and discussing it with the people who live with it.

After a devastating phone call, informing me that I didn’t make my summer all-star baseball team, I was free to devote my summers to my newfound mission. Now that my summers were free, I committed to do just that. My French teacher told me that a French family wanted a student to spend time with their son at their home, and then show him a little about America. With my parents’ support, I agreed to participate in the exchange program, and I found myself in Sanary sur Mer, France 5 months later. Fred, the exchange student, and his family encouraged me to speak French fearlessly and patiently corrected my more than frequent errors. My comfort level and confidence improved with every conversation. In addition to my learning more about the French language, I found that locals appreciated my attempt to participate in their culture, and accepted any mistakes that came with it. Instead of spending my time in France buried in a Gameboy, I forced myself outside of my comfort zone and discovered opportunities to swim, play sports, and navigate a ropes course in the forest with new friends. I like to think it was through the success of that adventure that I gained the courage to seek out more opportunities like it.

Distributing clothes I collected from friends and family at an orphanage in Kissidougou, Guinea

Distributing clothes I collected from friends and family at an orphanage in Kissidougou, Guinea

The following year I found myself playing cards on the hood of a taxi in Kissidougou, Guinea with my brother, a Peace Corps Volunteer, and a bunch of local boys. My purpose in Guinea was to deliver clothes that I had collected in America to an orphanage in my brother’s village, yet the trip became much more. I ended up in the thick of my brother’s work setting up a banking and loans system in a nearby village, sitting in on NGO meetings, and generally learning the lifestyle of a volunteer in a foreign country. Of course it wasn’t all work – the countryside in Guinea is breathtaking and woke me up to how much of the world I want to see. I lived as a Peace Corps Volunteer for three weeks and through that, and the most important lesson I learned was that the value of travel in any capacity is the relationships formed through it. Knowing the people I work with makes the service something more meaningful for both parties.

The following summer, I returned to the GSL Program and spent a month building a school in Toufestalt, Morocco. Unfortunately, our Morocco group was confronted with a budgeting issue that kept us from completing our project while we were there. We decided to accept the challenge of raising the funds to finish back in Seattle by selling jewelry we bought from a women’s association. That was a great success, and reminded me that social efforts aren’t something you leave behind when you leave the country.

Working on a small organic farm in Appalachia with a group from Notre Dame

Working on a small organic farm in Appalachia with a group from Notre Dame

Since graduating high school, I have spent a semester abroad in Angers, France and led a couple of weeklong service trips to the Appalachian Mountains. All of this travel has shaped me in very special ways. We live in a world that revolves around the American flag, and rarely do we see the issues of the rest of the world firsthand – we see them only through the lens of a media we don’t trust. My experiences have made me feel like a citizen of the world, and have also shown me that the human spirit endures despite the massive social problems that exist on every continent. There is kindness, generosity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship everywhere. I’ve been afforded access to an incredible education, and am motivated to apply the skills I’ve developed to improving opportunities for those less fortunate.