Earlier this week, Vicki and I spent a whirlwind 48 hours on an exploratory trip in New Orleans. We met with service providers and scoped out potential excursions (don’t worry, our recon included beignet testing at the famous Cafe Du Monde) for a weeklong service-learning program we’re planning for high school seniors from an independent school in New York City.
We have been working on this program design over the past couple of months – researching the city, contacting various organizations, and gathering information from people who formerly lived or currently live in the Big Easy. We have seemingly endless notes from phone calls, meetings, and email chains with people kind enough to impart their knowledge and share their experiences with us. In theory, we had enough information to plan a meaningful experience for this group of students without actually going to New Orleans.
While successful programs have certainly been designed without visiting the program site – I have been involved in the planning of some such experiences myself – there is an undeniable advantage to doing an exploratory trip. Having the opportunity to experience a place firsthand allows us to establish a sense of place, talk with locals, and vet potential activities to ensure they line up with the program’s goals and learning outcomes.
During our visit to New Orleans, Vicki and I met with three organizations about service opportunities: Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, Groundwork New Orleans, and Jericho Road Housing Initiative. I went into the trip expecting that once we learned more about each organization’s current projects, we would settle on one to work with for duration of the week. What I hadn’t realized before being in New Orleans, though, is how connected members of the larger community are to one another. Everyone we met with knew and had worked with everyone else we met with, and each of them is working toward one common goal: protecting New Orleans as a whole – its residents, its environment, and its line of defense against future natural disasters. In realizing this interconnectedness, our thinking around the service component of this program has shifted. We often plan service-learning around one project, allowing students to really immerse in it. Given the collaborative nature of nonprofits in NOLA, we’re now working on coordinating projects with all three organizations in order to deepen the students’ understanding of the ongoing challenges and successes in New Orleans post-Katrina.
Without meeting face-to-face with the passionate individuals behind these projects, we would have had no way to distinguish real commitment from lip service; no way to know that one of the most important takeaways for students is to understand how united New Orleans is as a community. After merely two days in New Orleans, I feel the connection to the city. I am thrilled to be able to work with the people I met there because I know they are as excited as we are about using service as a vehicle for learning.
I believe exploratory trips are crucial to designing effective programs. Building connections and developing mutual understanding across cultures are at the core of why I work in global education, and being able to make those connections personally allows me to develop more meaningful experiences for my students.