Memories and Advice from Community Service Tanzania

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Hamjambo! (“Hello” in Swahili)

As we prepare for our twenty-first summer in Tanzania, we recently caught up with several alumni of our Community Service Tanzania program. Check out what they had to say about their most memorable Putney experiences, and the advice they have for future Tanzania participants.

You can also get a glimpse of our Community Service Tanzania program through our video (featuring Dylan Posner ’13 more from Dylan below) or the 2014 program blog.


 

Danny Feinberg on safari

Danny on safari in Ngorongoro Crater

 

Danny Feinberg, Community Service Tanzania ’07

Pitzer College ’13; Fulbright Scholar, Madrid, Spain

Most memorable Tanzania experience:

“Each student pursued an independent project on a topic of interest. My project was on tourism in Tanzania and how it affects Tanzanian communities and ecosystems. The interviews and research I conducted opened my eyes to the complicated impact that tourism can have on countries and communities that embrace it. The project was a great learning opportunity and has strongly influenced the way I travel.”

Advice for future Putney travelers:

“Take time to reflect. Keep a journal. Anytime you travel you will have profound, worldview altering experiences and if you are open to using them as learning opportunities, you will be all the richer for it. Putney designs their programs so that you will have a thoughtful, life-changing experience. Embrace that and make an effort to meaningfully connect with the people who live where you are.”


 

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Ben, center, and Sarah, top row third from right, with their group in Tarangire National Park

 

Ben Schwartz, Tanzania ’09

Senior at Washington University in St. Louis

Most memorable Tanzania experience:

“For our day-stay experience we were split into small groups and spent the day with a family in our community. My group spoke only limited Swahili and the family just a little English. We spent the whole day laughing together as we each tried to figure out what the other was saying, and it was really an amazing challenge getting to know each other. It definitely brought our group closer too.”

Advice for future Putney travelers:

“Go in with an open mind, not only about the destination and community but also your group members. The students on my program were all very different but we became incredibly close over the course of the trip because everyone was willing to embrace new experiences. Take advantage of every opportunity and meet as many people as possible!”


 

Ben and Sarah at work on their community service project

Ben and Sarah at work on their community service project

 

Sarah Riessen, Tanzania ’09

Bucknell University ’14; currently works in educational travel

Most memorable Tanzania experience:

“Tanzania opened a mindset to me that was buried under to-do lists, college plans, and résumé builders. It opened me to different measures of success, conceptions of progress, and environments for learning. It evoked a thirst for travel and learning that was tapering towards the end of high school.”

Advice for future Putney travelers:

“You’re lucky to be where you are! The effects of your trip and your experience may not be felt for years to come. Don’t be scared to think back to your experience and draw from it as you form your path through school and work.”


 

Dan Martucci

Dan, center, at our village’s farewell ceremony

 

Dan Martucci, Tanzania ’12, Pre-College Oxford/Tuscany ’10

Sophomore at Colgate University

Most memorable Tanzania experience:

“The community service aspect of this trip was both eye-opening and fulfilling.  As a group, we repainted a school classroom and poured concrete to make a terrace and steps. While on the program I also realized how important the environment is to the people of Tanzania. This trip inspired me to pursue my interest in sustainability and I currently serve on the sustainability council at Colgate University and plan to pursue a career in environmental law.”

Advice for future Putney travelers:

“Step outside of your comfort zone and completely immerse yourself in the culture, environment, and experiences of the communities you visit.  You’ll be happy that you did.”


 

Dylan, second from left, with his group in Tanzania

Dylan, second from left, with his group in Tanzania

 

Dylan Posner, Tanzania ’13, Pre-College China ’12

Senior at Abraham Joshua Heschel School

Most memorable Tanzania experience:

“Every night the group would sit around the fire and each share our highs and lows from the day. Coming together as one was a fantastic way to end the day, looking around at people with whom you share an incredible bond.”

Advice for future Putney travelers:

“If you’re considering Putney’s Tanzania program, 100% go! Be open to new and unique experiences. Often, these experiences are life-changing. The Tanzania program was, is, and will forever be looked back on and identified as my first life-changing experience. It has opened so many doors, helped me discover new passions, and brought up new ideas.”


Until next time, kwaherini! (“Goodbye” in Swahili)

 

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New Language Learning Spain Video

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We are thrilled to present our new Language Learning Spain video. Hear from students and leaders, see the transformational relationships they form with our amazing host families, and get a glimpse of the Spanish cuisine, culture, and landscape that has kept us coming back for over 50 years.

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Alumnus and Instructor Start Tours for Humanity

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Bo Hammond, right, and Dan King, center, at Pre-College at Amherst College during the summer of 2005

We recently reconnected with 2005 Pre-College at Amherst College alumnus Bo Hammond and longtime Pre-College at Amherst College ethics and philosophy instructor Dan King. Bo and Dan have kept in touch since Pre-College at Amherst College ten years ago, and are now collaborating on a new venture — Tours for Humanity. Combining their passions in history and philanthropy, Tours for Humanity will provide walking tours in Washington, D.C., with a portion of their profits going to charity. In the words of Bo and Dan, “A tour won’t save the world, but it’s a step in the right direction.” We are continually inspired by the work of our amazing alumni, and were excited to chat with Bo and Dan about their summer at Amherst, Tours for Humanity, and making giving a part of their everyday lives. Find out more about Tours for Humanity.

Tell us about your summer at Amherst. What has kept you in touch with one another over the years? Is there anything from the experience that has impacted this recent venture?

DK: Bo’s summer at Amherst was probably my favorite year teaching there.  The mix of staff and students was really great, and I think it was just one of those years where everything and everyone just clicked together almost instantaneously.  The bonds between the students themselves were really remarkable.  I remember we had to have a special staff meeting that year to discuss the discipline problems in the boys dorm, because they kept staying up all night sneaking into Bo’s room to play Risk. Every time one of us would “bust” them, we’d couldn’t help but have these huge grins on our faces, which the guys would immediately play into.  They would start coming up with clever ways about how this game of Risk linked to the various classes they were all taking, and it was really difficult to keep a straight face.

BH:  The classes I took were International Relations and the History of War, so I feel that late-night Risk was legitimate study and preparation for World Domination.  I am still good friends with folks I bonded with that summer.  Here they are, years later, helping me and Dan take on the world.  Putney gave me life long memories, my favorite book I bought in the town square at Amherst, and it also gave me my life-long habit of listening to lectures and speeches on my iPod.

DK: When Bo moved to go to college at American University here in DC, we immediately reconnected and shared our passion for politics.  He eventually became head of the College Democrats and started inviting me to the great speakers he managed to line up, including JFK advisor and speechwriter Ted Sorensen.  We have remained friends ever since.

Dan, what drew you to work with Putney?

DK: I came from a boarding school background, so I was very familiar with the incredible sense of community that can be established when teachers and students live and work together, and how important that can be to overall learning. Teachers really get to know their students in that situation, and, perhaps more importantly, students get to see their teachers as real people.  Students pick up on their interests and passions, both inside and outside of the classroom, and the interests and passions of their peers, and they become energized by that.  That sense of community creates not only a safe place to stretch limits, but also serves as a great source of inspiration, for teachers and students alike.  Putney is also a great experience as a teacher because teachers teach what excites them.  I firmly believe that the kind of energy that creates is infectious for the whole community and pushes everyone to try new things.

What inspired you to create Tours for Humanity?

DK: I had been teaching at a civics education organization in Washington, D.C., using the city as an open-air classroom for kids from all over the country, a bit like my time at Putney, but with D.C. as a background.  I thought Bo would be a great teacher in that situation so I encouraged him to apply right out of college.  Using my knowledge of the city and the memorials in it, I just sort of fell into a tour guiding gig and I recruited Bo for that as well. Right about that time, Bo’s girlfriend, Lisa, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and had to begin chemotherapy right away.  She is an incredible woman, and she and Bo together faced this daunting challenge.  She is now a cancer survivor and one of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s “Woman of the Year” candidates because of all the fundraising work that she and Bo undertook for LLS.  However, fundraising is exhausting.  They both wanted to do something more sustainable.  Around that time, Bo started reading “Start Something That Matters,”by Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes, a company dedicated to the proposition that a successful business can also give back to the world.  All of these things swirled together in a cauldron, and out came Tours for Humanity.

How has your partnership shaped the project’s development?

DK: We have a great partnership that really plays to each of our strengths.  Lisa has an MBA from Trinity College in Dublin, so she has the business savvy.  Bo is the charisma and energy behind the endeavour and is a natural leader.  I handle the operations side.  All of us have a keen interest in giving back and making this project as sustainable as possible, and coming up with clever ways to have that incorporated into all parts of the business.

Tours for Humanity will cater to travelers in America’s capital — how has traveling influenced where you are today?

DK: After I worked at Amherst for Putney, I had the privilege of working at Putney’s Oxford-Tuscany program for a few years.  The Director of that program, Tom Kane, was  amazing, and one of the things he instilled in our group year after year was the idea of the Putney program as a “Traveling Group Adventure.”  That notion, which basically meant to embrace the adventure that comes from not having everything exactly planned out and taking advantage of opportunities you stumble upon, helped create this incredible community of open-minded travelers, both students and staff alike.   I remember finding the most incredible, bizarre, off-the-beaten-path, odd-ball museum for my World War II class in middle-of-nowhere Bologna.  Seriously, we had to take a bus out to the suburbs and then walk down a long,, dusty road that seemed to lead to nowhere.  But we met an amazing man, the proprietor of the museum, who had lived through the Nazi occupation of Bologna and had filmed, on a camera he bought from a fleeing German, the Allied liberation of Bologna, which he only allowed to be viewed at the museum.  No one else in the world has access to this film unless they travel there to see it.  The museum itself was just about the largest and most incredible collection of WWII artifacts I have ever seen.  It was an amazing experience, and could not have happened without both myself and my students being prepared for it, thanks to Tom Kane and this idea of embracing the chaos and, most importantly, not fearing mistakes and failure.  I think that belief is a big part of why Bo and I  believe we can do this.

BH:  Travel has shown us that we are all interconnected and that we have to work together on common problems and shared hopes.  Hopefully we can spread Tours for Humanity to other cities and turn travel into not only a way to enjoy the world but to help it.

Ideally, Tours for Humanity will be a way for travelers to give back as they learn about American history. Do you think giving is an inherent part of travel? How does one travel responsibly?

DK: I think giving is integral to travel.  When I worked with Pacific Island students at the civics education organization, I learned that giving is culturally ingrained when they travel.  They wouldn’t dare visit a new place without a meaningful gift from their home, usually highlighting their own culture.  Travel is the ultimate exchange, both for the traveler and for the hosts.  To travel responsibly means being open to that two-way exchange, to be humble and accepting of the new experiences and insights that different cultures provide, and to be ready to share yourself and your experiences of your own culture when the opportunity arises.

What advice do you have for young Pre-College students and world travelers?

DK: Embrace the chaos, in life in general, but especially as world travelers.  Flights will be delayed, museums and sites will be inexplicably closed.  Always keep looking around for those little opportunities that you otherwise miss by sticking to the plan.  Keep your head up and make it an adventure, no matter what happens.  And eat well.  The greatest moments I ever had traveling were exploring local culture through food.  It is the great common denominator among all peoples, and a wonderful way to connect with people with whom you might think you have little in common.

BH: For the love of all things good, read “Vagabonding” by Rolf Potts and “The 4-Hour Work Week” by Timothy Ferriss.  Travel is not about vacation. It’s about experiencing life in a meaningful and different way.

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Two dynamic leader pairs are back for Summer 2015!

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Extraordinary leaders make incredible programs. For 64 years Putney has employed exceptional leaders for our high school student programsgraduates of the nation’s top colleges and universities, with outstanding experience in teaching, foreign language, international living, and world travel. We are excited to welcome back some of our stellar alumni leaders for summer 2015. Justine Abou-Heif and Ryan Schroth will be returning for their third year with our Language Learning France program for 8th and 9th graders, and veteran leaders Kris de la Torre and Nate Marcus will be putting together their extensive experience in sustainable farming and cooking for our Farm to Table in Italy program. Click here to view our 2014 leader bios.

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Ryan Schroth and Justine Abou-Heif at the Putney Barn

Justine Abou-Heif

Language Learning France—8th and 9th grade

“What I enjoy most about working for Putney is the sense of excitement…from speaking with amazing new people at training with a wealth of experience, to meeting our students at the airport, there is a sort of Putney magic that can’t be recreated.  There is a sense of community, of trust, of openness, that all adds up to an inexplicable feeling associated with Putney.”

Currently Justine is a Grade 7/8 French Immersion Teacher at an elementary school in Ontario. In this position, she shares her love of culture, travel, and the French language with her students. She often returns to Nice, France, to continue her own immersion in French life. This will be Justine’s third year leading our Language Learning France program with Ryan.

Read Justine’s full bio.

Ryan Schroth

Language Learning France—8th and 9th grade

“I enjoy Putney’s careful preparation and planning of the trips…I am also completely behind Putney’s philosophy: language learning in-country wrapped up in fun excursions, challenging students to step out of their comfort zone and make personal growth, the commitment to creating an inclusive and caring team atmosphere…”

Currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of French and Italian, Ryan has continued to study language and the most effective methods to teach it. Ryan’s dissertation is on contemporary Francophone literature from Morocco, where he studied Moroccan culture and Arabic in 2011 as a Mellon-Wisconsin Fellow. This will be Ryan’s third year leading our Language Learning France program with Justine.

Read Ryan’s full bio.


 

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Kris De la Torre in Vermont

Kris De la Torre

Farm to Table in Italy

“The farm-to-table trip is the perfect marriage of my prior professional experience and passions: sustainable farming, food, community, youth, and travel.”

Based in New York City, Kris has taught classes at the famed Murray’s Cheese shop in the West Village, completed the F.A.R.M.S. apprenticeship at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in the Hudson Valley, and consulted for artisanal restaurants on her favorite ferments: cheese, beer, wine, and cured meats. She currently teaches classes about sustainable food distribution to high school students in the city, and represents a sustainable vineyard on the North Fork of Long Island. This will be Kris’s second year leading our Farm to Table in Italy program.

Read Kris’s full bio.

Nate Marcus

Chef and longtime Putney Leader Nate Marcus

Nate Marcus

Farm to Table in Italy

Nate is a full-time leader who has led 21 trips to various countries around the world. Nate currently teaches at Mise en Place Cooking School where he hosts and judges Iron Chef team-building events and instructs healthy cooking classes for the general public. He has led Putney programs since 2005 and taken several groups of students to Spain, in addition to programs in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Argentina, Cambodia, Switzerland, and Italy.

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Putney Student Travel and National Geographic

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National Geographic Student Expeditions Conservation in Action Belize

National Geographic Student Expeditions Conservation in Action program in Belize

Putney’s partnership with National Geographic has allowed us to create innovative programs that combine Putney’s over 60 years of experience in student travel with National Geographic’s spirit of adventure and exploration.  Through a variety of programs that focus on topics such as photography, filmmaking, community service, conservation, the sciences, and more, students explore hands-on, working on a tangible project that helps them engage with their destination.  Whether they’re monitoring dolphins alongside a marine biologist in Belize, helping to build a school in Thailand, or photographing Paris with the guidance of a National Geographic photographer, National Geographic’s teen travelers dig deep into incredible places all over the world.

Watch a video full of inspiring moments from last summer and get a glimpse of life on a National Geographic Student Expedition.  Then, visit the National Geographic website to see a full lineup of 2015 student expeditions including our popular trips to Ecuador and the GalápagosAustraliaPragueSwitzerland & France, and more.

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Parent Testimonial: The Power of a Putney Program

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We recently caught up with Kimberli Bailey, a Putney alumna and alumni parent with a long line of Putney participants in her family. While her connections to our summer travel programs for high school students could fill many pages, we thought we’d share an excerpt she wrote us on the impact our summer community service programs have had on one of her daughters, Madison. We’re inspired and humbled by her words and by her daughters’ commitment to community service and leadership.

As a parent and past participant, I have both researched and experienced a wide variety of programs and nothing comes close to Putney. It is by far the best-run student program in the country. Putney’s years of experience, their quality of leaders, and their dedication to their students are very unique.

Madison Bailey in Tanzania.

Madison Bailey in Tanzania.

My youngest daughter Madison participated in a Putney program in Tanzania and loved it so much that she returned to Africa the following summer. She lived in Zambia with a local family and worked in an orphanage and local hospital in a very remote village. Madison was so moved by both experiences that she decided to sponsor one of the children in the orphanage, securing his education throughout high school. Madison was on her community service board all through high school at the Shipley School, and served as its president her senior year. She is now a freshman at Colgate University (and wrote her admissions essay about her time in Tanzania), where she is president of her class and was just named the only freshman team leader in the Students to Students club. She is involved in a wide variety of community service projects at Colgate and in her local community, and recently won the National Young Heroes Award for her service. Madison frequently references her Putney program as a life-changing experience. I believe it gave Madison the skills to believe in herself and to believe that she has the power to change her community and to change the world.

Madison Bailey with local friends on our community service program in Tanzania.

Madison Bailey with local friends on our community service program in Tanzania.

I would encourage any family looking into Putney to take risks, go out of their comfort zone, and believe in the Putney magic.  Both of my girls went on programs without friends from their communities. I believe it made the Putney experience even better. My daughters made lifelong friends and ventured out on their own to experience different cultures and lifestyles.  They both believe, as do her parents, that Putney changes you forever.

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All in the Family: 10 Travelers Over 30 Years

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Throughout our 64-year history, Putney Student Travel has developed strong connections across generations of alumni families. Since the earliest programs journeyed across the Atlantic in the 1950s, we’ve been joined by friends, siblings, children, nieces and nephews, and even grandchildren of those travelers from the early years. As the Putney Student Travel family has grown up over the years, it has done so alongside our alumni families. We were recently reminded of this when we received a call from Stephanie Schaeffer, who traveled with us on our Switzerland, Italy, France, and Holland program in the 1980s with Jeff Shumlin as one of her leaders. Stephanie, whose last name back then was Cohn, was calling to inquire about the very same program for her teenage daughter, Caroline. Stephanie’s older daughter also participated in this program in 2014 and her siblings Jonathan, Kimberli, and Matt traveled with us on many different student travel programs in the 1980s as well. Stephanie’s husband Robert Schaeffer and her brother-in-law Tony are also alumni of Putney Student Travel, as are her nieces and nephews on both sides of her family. Her daughter Isabelle was the 10th member of the family to travel with Putney! Stephanie and Jeff, Co-Director of Putney Student Travel and son of the organization’s founders, relished this shared familial history over the phone. We later got in touch to interview Stephanie on the role Putney Student Travel has played in her family.

Stephanie's extended family. Seven of the family members in the picture have traveled on Putney programs.

This is a recent photos of Stephanie’s extended family. Seven of the family members in the picture have traveled on Putney programs.

In what ways have the Putney Student Travel alumni in your family carried their experience with them into their adult lives?

As an adult with a family of my own, I love to travel and realize that the way we travel now is built on the foundation of both my husband’s and my own Putney experiences. We love to explore a country in an authentic way — nothing is better than wandering aimlessly in a new town and asking locals where they like to eat. We don’t like to be tourists who are rushing to make sure we see all the most popular sights, but rather we love to explore and get a feel not only for the town or city we are visiting but for the people who live there as well.

Stephanie, left, on her Putney program in the 1980s.

Stephanie, left, on her Putney program in the 1980s.

I remember back to my Putney program and the week-long bike trip in Holland, how each day a different person would have the map and have to figure out how to get to the next hostel and decide where we would be stopping for lunch. There was no right way to get to the next place and the group placed confidence in the day’s leader and each day was an adventure. We never worried about what we might be missing by taking a certain path — but rather we relished what we saw along our way. If something piqued the interest of the group or even one person — whether it was a wonderful cheese shop or windmill or quaint town along the way — we explored it, and often this unexpected experience was a highlight of the day’s journey.

This is how my husband and I like to travel today. We take our family to wonderful places, but we aren’t tourists staying in the fanciest hotels. We prefer to stay in places that are more authentic to the region and prefer to walk around and explore a city rather than sitting in a bus or car and looking at the famous sites out the window.

Stephanie's nieces Madison and Cameron on our Community Service Tanzania program. The two applied independently of one another and were pleasantly surprised to find themselves in the same program!

Stephanie’s nieces Madison and Cameron on our Community Service Tanzania program. The two applied independently of one another and were pleasantly surprised to find themselves in the same program!

As an alumna and also a parent of Putney Student Travel participants, how would you say the experience has evolved over the years?

I think that the core of a Putney program hasn’t changed from 30 years ago when I was on my trip. The experiences continue to focus on adventuresome travel for curious students. The students who choose to go on a Putney trip today are truly grounded and interesting students who have a zest for adventure. They are open to exploring new experiences fully — whether it be sleeping on an overnight train on a triple bunk bed, living with a family who doesn’t speak English in a homestay, carrying their own bags from bus or train stations up cobblestone streets to a hostel, navigating the Paris metro, or appreciating art in a museum. The varied experience of Putney’s trips makes them exciting and interesting — that definitely hasn’t changed over time.

Stephanie's daughter Isabella, second from left, in the Alps on our Switzerland, Italy, France, and Holland program.

Stephanie’s daughter Isabelle, second from left, in the Alps on our Switzerland, Italy, France, and Holland program.

What sort of advice would you have for someone preparing for their first Putney program?

The best piece of advice I can give is: don’t go with friends or anyone you know! Putney trips are small groups with wonderful leaders who make sure that the group dynamics work well and that everyone is engaged and having fun. It’s a wonderful experience to make new friends from all over. You likely have gone to the same school or camp for a number of years and haven’t had the experience of making new friends as a teenager. It’s great practice for college when you will likely go with no one you know and will need to know how to make new friends.

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An Interview with Alan Huffman

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We are excited to announce that Alan Huffman will join us as the guest writer for our 2015 Writing in the American South program. Based in New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta, this two-week summer program for high school students is designed to give young writers individual and small-group instruction in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, writing for stage and screen, and more as they explore and engage with the region through dynamic, field-based writing exercises. We caught up with Alan to talk about his writing practice and philosophy, his relationship to the Mississippi Delta, and what he’s looking forward to most about collaborating with Putney this summer.

Born in Jackson, MS, Alan now splits his time between New York City and his home in Bolton, MS. He is the author of  five nonfiction books, and his work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Atlantic, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, the Oxford American, Outside, Newsweek, Washington Post Magazine, The Huffington Post, and The Daily Beast. During our conversation, Alan shared his thoughts on the interrelated nature of travel and writing, the South’s power to evoke great storytelling, and his advice for young writers and travelers.

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Alan Huffman at his historic home, Holly Grove, in Bolton, Mississippi. The house, which belonged to the family of a childhood friend, was built in 1832 on the Red Lick, MS, plantation whose owner inspired Alan’s 2004 book, Mississippi in Africa. It was given to him in 1990 with the stipulation that he dismantle it, move it to his own property (60 miles away), and restore it. // photo by James Patterson

Much of your work emanates from times in your life when you left your home and immersed yourself in the stories of others. What kind of effect do you feel these experiences, and the experience of stepping out of one’s comfort zone, have on an individual’s writing?

The story that formed the basis of my book Mississippi in Africa began in Mississippi, in familiar territory, but led to a decidedly unfamiliar place, to a region of Liberia known as Mississippi in Africa. Liberia was founded by freed slaves from the United States in the early 19th century, and the region called Mississippi in Africa was essentially a parallel Mississippi — a place they patterned after and named for their former home in the U.S. More than a century later, the subjugation of the indigenous tribes led to civil war. My desire to follow the story all the way through landed me in that war zone, which was as far outside my comfort zone as I’d ever been.

The basic premise I work from is that everyone knows something I don’t know. Everyone has their own piece of the puzzle. But it’s about more than the minutiae of a story, about all those individual pieces. It’s also about seeing the bigger picture taking shape. Part of the reason I come and go is to get a different vantage point on things. It’s like when you travel to an unfamiliar place: Upon your return, home looks different, too.

You have spent a fair amount of time in the Mississippi Delta (where our Writing in the American South program will spend much of its time) and now live quite close to there. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship to the area and what made you want to stay?

My paternal grandparents lived in the Delta, so I spent a lot of time there growing up. My first book was a collection of my grandmother’s photographs from their time there. As I got older I began to see what an archetypal place the Delta is. Everything we associate with the American South is writ large there, for better or worse. The area where I now live is about a half-hour away, but it’s basically the same world, and I stayed because I knew I could never exhaust the raw material available to me.

Many people see the Delta as a bleak place — a flat, sparsely populated region with great disparities in wealth and education, where great literature has historically been coupled with high illiteracy rates, and which has a notoriously conflicted racial history. But those paradoxes lend themselves to rich, complex stories. All great literature is about what Faulkner described as the human heart in conflict with itself, and you’d have to search far and wide to find a place with more conflicted hearts than the Mississippi Delta.

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The historic cabin where Alan and his dog lived for seven years while Holly Grove was restored. In 1996, after the restoration was complete, Holly Grove was entered into the National Register of Historic Places. // photo by Alan Huffman

What, in your view, does the region have to offer young writers?

In the world today, it’s much easier to control your sources of information. You can hide Facebook friends whose comments you find offensive. You can follow only those Twitter feeds that reinforce your personal views. You can carefully groom your influences as a writer, approaching storytelling from whatever academic paradigm you choose to superimpose upon it.

Yet all great writing is about revelation, and you don’t get that by limiting your exposure or strictly controlling your approach. In a place like the Delta, you can’t really insulate yourself from different kinds of experiences or from the conflicts they inevitably entail. It’s always right there in front of you. You have access to every kind of human drama on any given street or gravel road. All you have to do is be there and be open to the stories.

We often begin our Putney programs by sharing our hopes and fears for the experience ahead. What is one hope and one fear you have about the program?

My hope is that the students will see that a great story can come from anywhere — from the ruins of an old house, from a fragment of overheard conversation, from a glimpse of someone’s life that’s very different from your own. I don’t really have any fears about the program; my only concern is that the exercises be useful, that it be fun, and that we all grow as writers.

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Alan has very kindly invited us for a visit to Holly Grove, an inspiring setting for writing exercises and workshops! // photo by Alan Huffman

What are the non-writing elements of the program you’re most looking forward to?

Everything I’ve read about in the itinerary sounds interesting, but most of all I look forward to seeing an otherwise familiar place through fresh sets of eyes.

Many young writers have questions about where to find inspiration and what to do with it once they’ve found it. Can you talk a little about how you generate project ideas and your first steps toward approaching them as a writer?

My inspiration typically stems from a need to solve a problem or to fill a gap in my own understanding. In the case of my book Sultana, which is about a maritime disaster that occurred at the end of the American civil war, my interest was piqued after I heard about an Arkansas farmer who had plowed up some charred timbers from a wrecked steamboat. I was curious about the boat, and as I dug into the story I found that more people had died as a result of its sinking than had died on the Titanic, and that most of them were recently-released Union Army prisoners of war. I thought of the survivors, who had endured war and prison only to find themselves aboard a burning boat on a flooded river in the middle of the night when they were supposed to be on their way home. I wondered how they had survived the series of onslaughts, and what had happened to them in the years after. So I went from that simple prompt — a few pieces of charred wood — to focusing upon the lives of three men who endured pretty much everything the world can throw at you.

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Holly Grove in 1984. // photo by Alan Huffman

What advice do you have for young writers? How about for young travelers?

The best advice I can offer — and it applies to writing and to travel, is to be open to people whose lives are different from your own. Doing so will not only expose you to other pieces of the puzzle; it will tell you things about yourself.

Give us a book that is in your personal “canon” that maybe never made it to anyone’s top-10 list. What is it about that book that you connect with?

Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer. Dyer went to considerable effort to avoid completing a book he’d been commissioned to write about D.H. Lawrence, mainly because he wasn’t interested in telling readers what he already knew. Instead, he pushed into the unknown, open to whatever new and interesting distraction presented itself, and ended up writing a truly great book about the search for meaning in life, about himself, and, ultimately, about D.H. Lawrence. It’s a perfect example of trusting a story even when you feel you’ve lost your way, and then finding your way out.

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Holly Grove today. // photo by Alan Huffman

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Co-Director Peter Shumlin’s 3rd-Term Inauguration

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On January 8, many of us, along with Shumlin family members, made the trip to the statehouse in Montpelier to see the chief justice of Vermont’s Supreme Court administer the oath of office and to listen to Peter’s address from the floor of the House of Representatives. There were honor guards, music, and enough pomp and circumstance to go around.  Those of us who have worked with Peter for so long in his primary role as an international educator were filled with pride, but also with confidence that Peter’s extensive experience in international programs and his appreciation of experiential learning will continue to bring a unique perspective to getting creative things done for Vermonters.

Governor Peter Shumlin delivering his 3rd term inauguration speech.

Governor Peter Shumlin delivering his 3rd term inauguration speech.

Once the ceremonies were complete and the last hands shaken, the Putney delegation retired with the governor to his office overlooking the golden dome of the Vermont statehouse to relax and reflect.  Peter spoke about the daunting challenges facing the State of Vermont, the nation, and the world, and how slowly the wheels of progress move when compared to the significant change we can effect in the relatively short course of a Putney program.  Providing that transformation to Putney participants will continue to be our mission, and we know it will inform Peter’s strategy as as he toils away more slowly in a broader arena.

Putney directors and family traveled to Montpelier to support and congratulate Peter.

Putney directors and family traveled to Montpelier to support and congratulate Peter.

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Top Destinations According to The New York Times

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The New York Times came out with its list of the 52 best travel destinations for 2015, and we saw a lot that looked familiar! From recently unlocked treasures to new takes on classic destinations, we here at Putney are constantly pushing to charter innovative programs off the beaten track. Here are some of the destinations our programs will call home this summer, in the order determined by The New York Times list.

Teen cooking lessons on Italy summer program abroad

1. Milan, ItalyThe New York Times put Milan in the top spot for 2015, focusing mainly on the city’s culinary wonders. Milan will host the 2015 World Expo, featuring food, nutrition, and sustainable practices. Although our Farm to Table in Italy program settles in the countryside rather than the city, the focus on food is the same!

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2. Cuba – With a thaw in U.S.–Cuba diplomatic relations and the dawning of a new era upon us, it’s no surprise The New York Times ranked Cuba so highly. We’re thrilled to be one of the only organizations with the proper licensing already in place, and can’t wait to experience this exciting moment in Cuba and America’s relationship on our Cultural Exploration Cuba program this summer.

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16. Lower Manhattan, New York – Although New York City needs no introduction for many of our students, we love showing some of our Pre-College at Amherst College students around for the first time. With Pre-College at Amherst College students joining us from all over the U.S., and about 30 percent from abroad, our weekend excursion to New York City is often a highlight of the program!

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17. Tanzania – While Tanzania has burst onto the scene as a top international destination, we’ve been heading there for adventure travel and community service programs since the 1970s. The New York Times article focuses on the emergence of luxury hotels, but we’re fine with our village living on Community Service Tanzania!

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23. New Orleans, Louisiana – “Resilient and renewed” is how The New York Times describes the Big Easy, and we couldn’t agree more. Our new Writing in the American South program explores this vibrant region of the country with our base in New Orleans. We’ll get to know the city, hone our writing, and even learn from some of the premier writers that call New Orleans home.

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24. Peru – With a focus on community-based tourism projects on the north coast, The New York Times is sure to stress that there is an incredible country beckoning beyond Machu Picchu. We completely agree, and have been running service programs in tiny indigenous communities for years. Take a look at this video from Community Service Peru to learn more.

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41. Switzerland – Switzerland is one of the first destinations ever visited by Putney Student Travel participants. Our inaugural Cultural Exploration Europe program in 1951 took to the Alps and the surrounding Swiss and French countryside. Sixty-four years later, adventure awaits Putney students headed to the Swiss Alps.

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 43. Danang, Vietnam – Our Community Service Vietnam program explores the region surrounding Danang, Vietnam. Volunteers on this particular program build a house from start to finish alongside a local family.

A night shot from our trip to Shanghai's World Financial Center, the highest observation tower in the world.

46. Shanghai, China – Shanghai, host to our Pre-College Shanghai program, features an incredible blend of cutting-edge innovation and centuries-old history and culture. Our students explore both the old and the new in Shanghai through the lens of their interactive seminar group.

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48. Rome, Italy – Our Pre-College Florence program bases itself in the vibrant university city of Florence, and takes trips to explore the breezy beaches of Cinque Terra and the majestic antiquity of Rome.

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