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.

Making Connections during an Exploratory Trip to New Orleans

Vicki ringing the Coast Guard bell at Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation

Vicki ringing the Coast Guard bell at Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation

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.

Exploring the French Quarter -- endless opportunities for scavenger hunts!

Exploring the French Quarter — endless opportunities for scavenger hunts!

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.


One of many beautiful murals we saw in NOLA. This one is on the wall of the New Orleans Healing Center.

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.