Team Tanzania 2018 with some students at The School of St. Jude.
Program offers students change to travel, learn about other culture, and live responsibly as global citizens
Oct. 12, 2022
While on my whirlwind interview day in the spring of 2004 I recall Kathy Linter, the dean of faculty at the time, asking me about areas where I would like to be involved and support students. I already knew that if I came back to Culver Academies there would be two things that I would make time to be involved in: the Mission Trip Program (changed to GPS in 2012-2013) and the Speech Team, as these were both such big parts of my four years at Culver as a student.
In the spring of 1995, during my freshman year, I was part of a two-van caravan to St. Johns Island, South Carolina, where we spent a week building and remodeling homes in an impoverished community. This trip was chaperoned by the Steffans and Mayfields, two couples who worked at Culver for many years. It was the first time I really stepped out of my comfort zone as I did not know many other people on the trip, and it was my first experience with poverty here in the United States.
My sophomore year I embarked on a very different trip to Washington, D.C. We stayed in the basement of a church and did several service projects with the homeless community. It opened my eyes to homelessness and helped me realize that every person has a story. The amazing thing that happens when you take the time to hear their stories, it helps them feel seen and cared for. These trips showed me how taking time to help others can help build community; and it lit a spark within me to give back and to serve others.
Fast forward several years now,and I am a seasoned team leader for the GPS (Global Pathways Spring) program having led over 15 trips with many incredible groups of students all over the world,
Each spring planning begins on the next year’s Spring Break trips under the direction of our program coordinator, Dean M. Lynn Rasch ‘76, and continues over the summer. By fall, we have a list of trips, a draft itinerary, and the Activities Fair kicks off recruiting for the trip. Sign-ups start around Fall Parent’s Weekend each year (Wednesday, Oct. 5 for 2023 GPS trips) and the GPS prefects always present about the trips at the Fall Parents Weekend. Thanks to generous donors there are some scholarships available and many of our merit scholarship programs include funding for a trip during a student’s sophomore year. Most trips are open to students of all grades, and we most commonly see sophomores and juniors choose to go on GPS trips.
By November or December, the teams are formed and meet regularly to get to know one another and plan for the trip. The regular meetings are my second-favorite part of the GPS program (actually travelling is first) because this is when the team works through the first few phases of team development: forming, storming, and norming. The best teams leave Culver ready to achieve the fourth phase, performing, by embracing new experiences, adapting to changes and surprises, and seeing the team as their family for the next two weeks. Some of the student leaders on the 2022 Southwest GPS trip ensured that this happened as they challenged the team to hike with different people, eat with different people, and make the time to get to know everyone on the trip.
These trips give our students a chance to experience new cultures and to truly embrace being global citizens. Each trip is unique and offers different opportunities. As a trip leader I have learned so many lessons from students and have also been reminded time and again how supportive, resilient, and kind our students are. Things do not always go as planned when you travel, especially when traveling in large groups. I’ve found that adjusting to unexpected events often makes for the best memories. In March of 2018, while on the trip to Tanzania, we were visiting a Maasai Boma where a student from the school’s family lived when a rainstorm hit. The roads were dirt and the bus driver worried about getting stuck, so instead of cutting the visit short we agreed that we would walk down the road to where the bus could safely park. This unplanned walk turned into such a great moment that I’ve asked to do it again during the upcoming 2023 trip. One learns a lot while walking two miles through a rural area of a foreign country. For example, you learn that wet clay builds up on your shoes like bricks; you learn the ways the farmers work their fields by hand; you learn the ways that people carry buckets of water to and from home. Finally, you realize that this is how the children who live in this area go to school every day. This unexpected walk was eye-opening for the group and well-worth walking a mile (or in this case two) to understand.
I have the most experience with the trip to South Africa, having led six of the seven trips there. Over the years, Culver has developed a great partnership with Leadership Committee for Africa (LCA), an on-campus club, and Christel House South Africa (CHSA), a K-12 school in Cape Town. We have shared many CGA leadership workshops and often partner with the student-leaders at CHSA on the trip. This trip has evolved along with our partnership with CHSA. In 2008 we were welcomed like visitors and ate as a group in the library, but in 2010 we returned more like family members and joined their students for lunch. This was the case for subsequent trips in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2019.
There are now four leadership workshops that we have shared with the student leaders at CHSA: Communication, Compassionate Listening, Teambuilding, and Strengths. These all came from the CGA Residential Curriculum and have been adapted and edited by the students leading them each time. In preparation for the trip, the team breaks into four workshop groups to revise and make the workshop their own, practice it on their teammates, get feedback, revise it again, and then lead it four times while in South Africa. Each time they lead it they unpack what worked and what could have gone better and then adjust for the next time. This is when I enjoy stepping back as the adult and watching the students not only leading but engaging with others. LCA now leads a compassionate listening workshop each year on campus to help more students experience it. With a few years between trips (thanks to COVID) we wanted to keep a group of students excited about the South Africa workshops.
After the 2012 South Africa trip, a few leaders of LCA pointed out that some of our most involved students couldn’t afford to go on the trip and looked at ways that we could raise money to help provide scholarships. In 2013, LCA Concessions started as a way for us to raise money to support the LCA Mission Trip. We now manage several concessions sales every year at various events on campus. Thanks to the support of the students, faculty, staff, parents, and fans, we have been able to sponsor a scholarship for an LCA member to attend a GPS trip several times (2016, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2023) and we have also helped to keep the cost down. We are planning to return to The School of St. Jude in Tanzania in 2023. The sales will sponsor two scholarships and buy items from the school’s wish list to take with us (mostly library books for their library).
The first GPS trip to Tanzania was in 2018 after I was fortunate enough to spend four weeks there with a few faculty members during the summer of 2017 in partnership with faculty at The School of St. Jude. Evan Heckman ’06 introduced Culver to the school and helped to fund a teacher exchange program. Evan and his family have also supported the Tanzania GPS trip in 2018, 2020 (which was canceled due to COVID), and have helped with the 2023 planning process. My time in Tanzania helped me to slow down (visitors often hear “pole pole” in Swahili which means “slowly slowly”) and appreciate all that we have access to and can do here at Culver Academies. We are so fortunate to be at a boarding school in Indiana working with students who value their education and want to grow as leaders.
By asking “how can we help?” and “what do you need?” leading up to the 2018 trip to Tanzania, LCA launched the “Tanzania Drive” where our students collected items from their wish list including post-it notes, school supplies, athletic shoes, and hundreds of bras. When we embarked on our travels each student had two checked bags, one of their own items and one that we packed full of donations. Many of our team meetings leading up to the trip involved sorting and packing donations. Once in Tanzania, we had a separate room for all the donations, and the students there were so grateful for the items. The school founder, Gemma Sisia, even came by to check out our donations and thank us in person.
Overall, the GPS trips have been a big part of my Culver experience as a student and adult. They serve a key role in developing responsible, global citizens and I hope that every student can experience one of these trips during their time at Culver.