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.  

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