Leader Matthew Salesses Publishes New Novel

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Writing in Prague Leader and Author Matthew Salesses.

Writing in Prague leader and author Matthew Salesses.

We caught up with author and veteran Putney leader Matthew Salesses to talk about his forthcoming novel The Hundred-Year Flood. Due out in August, Matt’s first full-length novel is a coming-of-age story set in Prague, where he lived for a year and also led our Writing in Prague program in 2014. Roxane Gay calls the novel “epic and devastating and full of natural majesty,” while Kenneth Calhoun writes that Matt “artfully weaves an intricate tapestry, shifting effortlessly between time, place, and identity while exploring all three subjects in the process.” Matt’s nonfiction writing has appeared in NPR Code Switch, the New York Times Motherlode blog, and Salon, and his fiction has appeared in PEN/Guernica, Glimmer Train, and American Short Fiction, among others. He is the fiction editor and a contributing writer at the Good Men Project and the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying. During our conversation, Matt shared his thoughts on Prague as setting, the power of fiction and myth, and his advice for young travelers and writers.

Pre-order The Hundred-Year Flood here.

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First of all, congratulations on the upcoming publication of your first novel, The Hundred-Year Flood! You’ve been working on it for a long time. Can you talk a bit about how you got the idea for the project and any major ways it has evolved between its inception and completion?

I taught English in Prague for a year in 2004-2005, my first year out of college. Mostly, this meant having conversations while emphasizing grammar and pronunciation. I liked to talk about the myths and superstitions of Prague, which are many and amazing. For example, a hill under which an army sleeps, ready to defend Prague in some apocalyptic situation. One of the myths was a prediction that half of Prague would be destroyed by water and half by fire. In 2002, a “hundred-year” flood (a flood said to come only once every hundred years) destroyed a part of the city. I started a novel in 2004 about the group of expatriates I hung out with. After many drafts, and eleven years, the novel turned out to be more about the myths, the flood, and adoption.

The book centers on the story of a young person leaving home and immersing himself in another culture. What impact do you feel this type of experience has on an individual’s personal development? What about on their writing?

The immersion for me is always also outsiderness. It’s a strange mix. There’s this sense of dislocation not only from where you used to live but from yourself. It can actually be really freeing, though, maybe unlike outsiderness can feel at home. Sometimes you need to step away from yourself to see who you are, I think. The same goes for your writing.

Matthew Salesses with students on his Writing in Prague program last summer.

Matthew Salesses with students on their Writing in Prague program last summer.

Have you seen this come to pass in your own life? How about with students on your Putney program?

My time in Prague and my time in Korea the year afterward were two of the largest influences on my life and my writing. I think we saw a lot of change in the students we had in Prague last year. For many of them, it also seemed to allow them to be more themselves.

You have spent a fair amount of time in Prague, where The Hundred-Year Flood is set and where you led our Writing in Prague program in 2014. Can you tell us about your relationship to the place and why it seemed like the right setting for your the novel?

Prague is this crazy mix of magic and hard reality. It’s a place that has survived invasion after invasion, a place where you can see architectural periods slammed up right against each other, a place that glows at dusk, a place of religion and pogroms and paganism and Secret Police, a place where Hitler once wanted to create a museum in the Jewish Quarter to an extinct race. Myth and story survive everything, but not as seriously as ironically, it seems to me. There is an imaginary Czech hero named Jara Cimrman who did things like invent an airplane cabin before the airplane, who was once voted representative historical figure or something of the Czech Republic. My novel is invested in these questions of what is real and what is not, and what is maybe realer than reality, what is hidden or made real by myth.

Matthew Salesses, second from right, with co-leaders Annie Agnone and Henk Rossouw, and guest writer Brain Stavely in Prague.

Matthew Salesses, second from right, with co-leaders Annie Agnone and Henk Rossouw, and guest writer Brian Staveley.

You work in both nonfiction and fiction, and some elements of The Hundred-Year Flood are drawn in part from your own life. What does the art of fiction lend to the ideas you explore in this project?

Well, for one, my time in Prague was a lot less interesting than the story I’ve written. I never fell in love with a woman who inspired a famous artist. The flood happened two years before I got there. In a way, fiction allowed me to put a lot more pressure on the themes and events of my own life. What does love look like if you’re the lover in an affair with a married woman? What if your own father had an affair with his sister-in-law and it led to your uncle’s death? What if you were a more dramatic version of yourself? It would be more fun for readers, and maybe carry more weight for them, as well.

Finally, what advice do you have for young writers? How about for young travelers?

For both: let yourself be vulnerable.

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Art and Architecture with George Philip LeBourdais

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Instructor George Philip LeBourdais on Putney’s Pre-College Paris program.

A native Mainer, George Philip loves being in museums almost as much as being outdoors. His research, writing, and photography have led him from the mountains of Switzerland, where he was a Fulbright Scholar, to the coast of California, where he now resides. George Philip graduated from Middlebury College with a Bachelor of Arts in French, Italian, and Art History, and then went on to complete his Master of Arts degree in Arts History at Williams College. As a Doctoral Candidate at Stanford, George Philip focuses on environmental history and ecology at the intersection of art and science. We spoke with George Philip about the exhibition he recently curated at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center and his experience exposing students to the world of art on several Putney programs.

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Pre-College Art & Architecture and Photography students team up to explore the Paris Arcades.

George Philip has taught the history of art, architecture, and photography at the high school and college levels, and is a multi-year veteran instructor of Putney’s Language Learning France and Pre-College Paris programs. He has the innate ability to translate his academic knowledge and expertise into tangible, real-world experiences for Putney students — The photo above was taken by George Philip and his Art and Architecture students as they explored the Arcades during their Pre-College Paris program. We talked with George Philip about the experience.

“This was one of my favorite days of the trip, a distinction made unlikely by the temps de chien. Under shifting rains, my art and architecture class had joined with David Weldzius’ street photography class to visit the Arcades,” says George Philip.

“As we talked about the architecture of the glass-covered passages and how they changed the way nineteenth-century Parisians shopped and moved through the city, the students paired up to take photographs. While we pulled my big view camera’s hood over our heads to set up the shot, people began to stop, asking us questions in French, accepting our invitation to peer into the glass of the camera themselves.”

“Not only is this image a souvenir of that experience, it’s also a great reminder of the power of slowing down, being present and engaging people. On a trip like this, lessons in photography can quickly become lessons on how to be a good citizen of the world.”

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George Philip LeBourdais with Pre-College students.

Outside of his summers spent with Putney, George Philip curated an exhibition at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. The exhibit, Arboreal Architecture: A Visual History of Trees, which opened on April 15th, is a collection of representations of trees, ranging from a 6th-century Egyptian medallion to 21st-century photographs. As George Philip explains in an article published by Stanford University, the exhibit examines, “the tree-like structures of knowledge that help us make sense of the world”. For his doctorate in the History of Art and Architecture, George Philip continues to explore this line between nature and culture in the photography, painting, and travelogues of renowned 19th-century painter and photographer William Bradfordart.

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Featured Instructors: Pre-College at Amherst College

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Pre-College instructors return to Putney high school summer programs year after year because they love each summer’s possibilities. Instructors are dedicated to collaborating with students and catering to their interests —  creating unique, engaging curriculum, and new cultural activities every year. Putney Pre-College Enrichment instructors are not only leading experts in their fields, doctoral students, and professors at the nation’s top universities, but they are also well-rounded, engaged travelers, mentors, and friends. Check out these bios of Pre-College instructors Claire Gerety-Mott and Nikolas Sparks, who will be joining us at our Pre-College at Amherst College program this summer. Click here to view our 2014 leader bios.

 

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Claire Gerety-Mott

Film Studies, Filmmaking

Education: Columbia University, B.A., Film Studies and Creative Writing

Claire majored in film studies and minored in creative writing at Columbia University. She currently resides in Los Angeles and has written seven features, two TV pilots, a web-series, a play, and a children’s book entitled Nathaniel T. Culpepper is Missing a Sock. She has also directed five short films. With her experience working on studio films such as North Country, Torque, and Rumor Has It in multiple capacities including assistant to the director, she has gained knowledge of the workings of the studio system. In the independent world she worked as apprentice to Joan Scheckel, writing and directing coach to the filmmakers of Little Miss Sunshine, Whale Rider, and Beginners. Her gritty period drama pilot, The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of, is currently in development by producer/actor Vincent Piazza from Boardwalk Empire. Her web series The Hub has been picked up by showrunner Les Firestein from In Living Color and The Drew Carey Show, and they have been pitching it to various television networks. Claire not only has a well-rounded knowledge of the craft of storytelling, life-long passion for the art of cinema, and an understanding of the media of film from so many different vantage points, she has also been making her living as a tutor for all age groups and is passionate about educating young minds. In addition to her film experience, Claire has lived in Spain and Italy, has worked as a pastry chef for a catering company, has been a food development coordinator for a Trader Joe’s supplier, and is an award-winning pie maker. This will be Claire’s second summer teaching Film Studies and Filmmaking at Pre-College at Amherst College

 

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Nikolas Sparks

Assistant Director

Education: University of California, Santa Cruz, B.A., with Highest Honors; Columbia University, M.A.; Duke University, Ph.D. (candidate).

Nik was born and raised in San Francisco, and has long had a passion for exploring the intersections of art and politics.  Earning his B.A. at UC Santa Cruz, he majored in both Literature and American Studies.  While at Santa Cruz, Nik taught a variety of community classes about the prison system and political organizing.  In addition to his interest in politics, Nik has extensive experience in the world of publishing, working in the editorial departments of City Lights Bookstore and Publishing, Grove/Atlantic Press, Souls Journal, and Duke University Press.  After leaving San Francisco, Nik spent two years earning his master’s degree in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York.  Since completing his degree at Columbia, Nik has begun work on his doctorate in the English department at Duke University.  Nik has for three summers at our Pre-College summer program at Amherst College.

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Pre-College at Amherst College with Carter Carter

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Longtime Pre-College Amherst Instructor Carter Carter

We recently caught up with Carter Carter, a three-time Putney student in high school, and longtime Putney community service leader and Pre-College at Amherst College psychology instructor. Carter is a clinical social worker and psychotherapist who maintains a clinical practice at the Brookline Community Mental Health Center in his hometown of Brookline, MA.  In addition to clinical practice, Carter is on the faculty of Lesley University’s Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences, where he teaches clinical theory and diagnosis to psychotherapy trainees.  He is also a member of the Massachusetts Medical Reserve Corps, a disaster relief organization, and the Massachusetts Institute for Psychoanalysis.  This summer he will be beginning his doctoral work at the Smith College School for Social Work in Northampton, MA.  Check out his reflections on working with Putney, and what makes the experience at Pre-College at Amherst College unique.

Many of the best things in my life are, in one way or another, connected to my long relationship with Putney Student Travel.  As a high school student I had the privilege to travel with Putney to France, India, and Indonesia.  I’ve maintained lifelong relationships with the latter two countries, studying abroad in both during college and returning to Indonesia in 2012 to lead the same Putney program I went on as a student!  I’d highly recommend that experience to any Putney Student Travel alumni, by the way, everyone in the village is somewhere between shocked and thrilled to see you again and you wind up being given a lot of food.

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Carter as a student on Putney’s India program

Putney has been even better for me as an adult.  As a sophomore in college I became an RA at Pre-College Amherst.  As I mentioned, after graduating I had the opportunity to return to a really extraordinary Indonesian island and spend a summer with a bunch of memorably wonderful and gutsy students, many of whom are now forces to be reckoned with at a variety of elite colleges.  For the last three summers I’ve had the unrivaled pleasure of teaching psychology at Pre-College Amherst.  I’m a social worker by training (spending one’s formative years doing community service tends to make a habit of it — parents be forewarned!) and a psychotherapist specializing in community mental health.  I think it says something about the Putney experience that I’d be willing to take all my vacation time three summers in a row to go work 24/7 and live in a college dorm!

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Carter and his Putney group in France

When I took Psychology 101 in college I got a C+.  I was a passable student overall but the experience was one of such stultifying boredom that I could scarcely stay awake, and being awake tends to be important for not getting Cs.  It wasn’t until I got to graduate school that material was being taught in a compelling way.  I held onto this insight in devising my introductory psychology courses for PC Amherst, and offered the students a graduate-level class without any homework.  We talked about psychoanalysis, infant attachment, neurobiology, cutting-edge trauma theory, and much else besides.  The capstone of one class, Psychology of the Criminal Mind, was a visit to the Hampshire County House of Corrections and a moving discussion with three of the gentlemen serving time there about their lives.  These were outside-of-the-box opportunities, and ones that paid off beautifully.  These are the sort of experiences that Putney not just allows but encourages its instructors to seek out.  This allows the students to be exposed to ideas and modes of inquiry that are generally, and incorrectly, thought to be too advanced for them, all without the pressure of grades or competition.

I am very sad to say that I will not be teaching at Pre-College at Amherst College this summer.  Harkening back to the theme of most of the best things in my life being connected to Putney: after last summer I was able to secure a faculty position at a psychotherapy training program on the basis of my teaching experience at Pre-College Amherst.  This position made possible admission to a summer-residency doctoral program at Smith, a choice I made in part because it would let me spend my summers in the same neighborhood as the wonderful friends I’ve made teaching at Pre-College Amherst the last three years.  In sum, I have a great career, educational advancement, a lifetime of invaluable memories, amazing friends, roommates (hi Alex and Adam!) and the world’s best girlfriend (hi Ayala!) because of Putney.  What’s your summer job done for you lately?

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Pre-College at Amherst College in Montreal

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Pre-College at Amherst College students not only get the chance to delve into their seminars with engaging instructors — but also have the opportunity to explore the natural wonders and iconic cities of the Northeast. Check out these photos from our excursion to Montreal. From our base at McGill University, we explore the cobblestone streets of the Old City, soak in the Parisian atmosphere of Rue St. Denis, bike along the St. Lawrence River, shop for a picnic lunch at the sprawling Marche Atwater, and catch an outdoor concert at the International Jazz Festival.

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Gracie’s College Essay — Community Service Rwanda

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Gracie with Bienvenie on her Community Service Rwanda program.

Gracie with Bienvenie on her Community Service Rwanda program.

Gracie Callaghan of Norwich, Vermont, traveled with Putney on our high school summer community service program to Rwanda in 2013. She recently shared her college essay with us about her experience.

In Gracie’s words, “I was really inspired by my trip to Rwanda in 2013, I came back a completely different person and it was unparalleled to any experience I have ever had… After experiencing Rwanda, I was inspired to reach out to my community and see what I could do to help, and make a change.  For the entirety of last summer I had the opportunity to be a volunteer at my community’s homeless shelter.  I then went on to write my college essay on my experience in Rwanda… The test scores and the grades were important but this essay was what I felt resonated with me as an individual, and because I was able to convey my individuality through this piece of work I became a member of the Wheaton class of 2019.”

We were impressed by Gracie’s insightful words as she describes bonding with Bienvenie, a patient at a local children’s hospital in Rwanda. Gracie will be graduating from Hanover High School this spring and attending Wheaton College in the fall. Best of luck next year Gracie, and thank you for sharing your essay with us!

Bienvenie

The first time I saw him, he wasn’t smiling, and he wasn’t happy. He was tied to a chair, legs crossed, looking across the room, unmoving. I had never been in a disabled children’s orphanage before, but I knew that this was not normal. In Rwanda disabled children are disrespected because they are thought of as evil, unattractive, and they are left to fend for themselves. Three midwives were caring for sixteen children and each child had their own issues, their own way of resolving conflict, and their own story. I don’t know why I was drawn to him – maybe it was because the other children were outside enjoying the sunlight, getting to know the rest of the group, or could it have been that somehow, even though we were worlds apart, I saw myself in him? Why couldn’t Bienvenie be happy too?

It is amazing to me that one of the poorest regions in east Africa is where I truly felt content. At the time I couldn’t figure out why taking care of Bienvenie was so calming and important to me. What part of me was he reaching? The mother side where seeing this boy so unhappy made me just want to make him happy? The adopted side of me where my family, and friends have shown so much support and love that I couldn’t think of treating him any less? Or the scared side of me, subconsciously connecting to when I had once been in this situation?

I don’t remember my situation, it was too long ago, but I began my life in an orphanage in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. My mom has told me that while my brother and my sister were playing with the other kids, I had removed myself and had the angriest look on my face, like I would never smile again. In that moment my mom said to my dad “If it takes my whole life’s work, I will do anything to make Gracie smile.”

With Bienvenie I saw a frail, malnourished frame, legs not strong enough to walk on and consequently, he was tied in a chair. I didn’t really think, I untied him from the chair, scooped him up, and brought him outside. At first he was a little shocked, not sure what was happening but he appreciated every second of my attention. I sat down on the dusty floor, with him cradled on my lap. For some reason having him stare up at me, his little hands holding my hand, just sitting there in this dingy, over-crowded orphanage, was incredibly fulfilling.

To me life isn’t about the days that are easy. It is about the moments that change your life, the split seconds that can never be undone, the stories that change your perspective, and how one moment taken out of your busy life, spent on someone else, can change both lives forever. I will most likely never see Bienvenie again, we don’t speak the same language, and he may not be there when I return, but I am glad I can remember the days that I spent with him. So even as I walk out of Starbucks, sit down to take an exam, or get ready to start in a field hockey game I can remember how meaningful those days were to me. Because without one day, without one chance, I couldn’t have met the most beautiful boy in the whole world, and felt the true meaning of being completely and irrevocably content.

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Madison’s College Essay from Rwanda

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Madison in Rwanda

Congratulations to Madison Welker, an alumna of our summer community service program in Rwanda, on her acceptance to Lehigh University, Elon University, Tulane University, Colby College, Loyala University Maryland, University of Maryland College Park, University of Vermont, and Trinity College! Madison is a current senior at Edgemont High School in Scarsdale, New York, and she wrote one of her college admissions essays on a particularly powerful connection she made with a young Rwandan. Thanks for sharing your inspiring words with us Madison, and best of luck at Lehigh University next year!

Victoria’s sunburnt hands loosely grip my pointer finger, transferring the dirt and saliva that stained her skin to mine. I feel her fear of standing up through the slight twitching in her fingertips; I slowly bend down to lift her from the filthy, deteriorating mattress. Today is not a day where I get joy from Victoria smiling at my goofy faces or chuckling when I lightly squeeze her waist. Today is a day of desolation for me as I help her through the terror of her Epileptic seizures.

Every day that I entered the fraying, wooden gates of AVE-H, Victoria’s home and an orphanage for the disabled a mile down the dusty roads of Nyamata, I am reminded that I made the right decision to come here. Walking down the rural road I am surprised that the residents seem genuinely happy; none of the locals was seemingly fazed by the violence that had impacted their communities. A country scarred by genocide, Rwanda is universally known to be a global “stop-sign” in the world of travel. This spot on a map had never crossed my mind until my AP European History class made it shine. From that moment on, I was intrigued by Rwandans’ methods of coping with the terror that has stricken their country.

Eager to travel the world one risk at a time, I set my heart on landing in Rwanda that summer, no matter how much negotiation flooded my mom’s ears. Not fond of my possible course of action, my mother spent countless days attempting to talk me out of my obsession with the risk that is Rwanda. “A genocide,” she said. “A place where rebel groups continue to lurk.” Little did either of us know on that frosty January day, when she deemed my travels okay, that Rwanda would be a place that I will forever associate with smiles as broad as the world.

I wanted to leave an impression somewhere and I knew that impact would be on children. The evening before I met Victoria, we sixteen travelers discussed our desires and fears of going to AVE-H. As I listened to the concerns of others, it became clear to me that I had no concerns; I was excited. Amelia and Ted, our “Mom and Dad” for the next five weeks, explained what to expect of my new friend, Victoria. The emotional toll may cause uneasiness the first few days, they kept repeating; I was ready.

At first glance, as Victoria sat proudly in her nearly broken high chair, her disability was hidden. Without hesitating, I approached her, carefully reaching under her sensitive armpits to hold her in my arm. I waited for her to utter a sound and quickly realized how different this three-year-old appeared from my young cousin; her epilepsy impaired her from speaking.

Yet within six hours, I knew her tickle spots, her favorite ratio of beans to rice for lunch, and lastly, our shared love for a soccer ball. Over the next five weeks, eight hours a day, we were constant companions. I was eager to finish lunch each day to see her face light up as I woke her up from her afternoon nap. I was eventually given permission to venture beyond the orphanage gates with Victoria as we got fresh air and took walks through the village. Each day as I said goodbye to her, I realized Ted and Amelia were wrong. Being with Victoria won’t take an emotional toll; leaving her will.

My connection with Victoria was not about soccer balls or lacrosse nets.  Never before had I formed a bond with a child that did not involve physical activities. Perhaps that made it even more special. Now as I go to watch my camper’s travel soccer games and begin my last season as a coach, I realize that Victoria changed how I view the relationships I build with children. I see the impact I make on children on and off the field because of Victoria.

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Claudia’s College Essay — Pre-College Spain

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Claudia on her Pre-College Barcelona program.

Claudia, a high school senior from Massachusetts, traveled with us on our Pre-College Madrid and Pre-College Barcelona programs in 2013. Congratulations Claudia on her acceptance to the University of Michigan, New York University, Boston University, University of Vermont, University of Maryland, and Indiana University. Check out Claudia’s college essay on an unexpected self-discovery during her time in Barcelona. Thank you for sharing your work with us Claudia, and best of luck at the University of Michigan next year!

One of the great experiences of my life happened completely by accident. Two summers ago, I participated in a cultural immersion program in Madrid and Barcelona. I took classes in the morning and spent the rest of my day visiting historical sites. My cell phone was my constant companion. I took pictures, messaged friends at home, and posted on social media, capturing where I was, instead of absorbing my surroundings. One day, on my way to lunch with my new friends, I jumped out of a cab enthusiastically, but unknowingly empty-handed. After a fruitless search, I concluded that I had left my phone in the cab. Naturally, this loss was disconcerting. I could no longer readily call someone if I was excited, if I got lost, or if something had gone awry.

In a short time, however, I realized that losing my phone made everything about my Spanish experience better. Being disconnected from home enhanced my connection to where I was. As I explored the markets abuzz with people, the sweet smell of fresh fruit juices, the savory smell of croquetas, and the stench of raw meat all became more intense. The wild architecture of Gaudí became even more vivid. I was fully present, absorbing the realness of everything.

Later in the trip I visited Camp Nou, the soccer stadium of FC Barcelona. I lingered while viewing the field, the locker room, and the tunnel from which the players come out onto the field. I imagined what it would be like when the stadium comes alive with nearly 100,000 fans. Since I didn’t have a phone, it was impossible to contact friends to meet afterwards. Although I didn’t have a guide, translator, or map, I relied on my good sense of direction, recognizing neighborhoods I’d only seen once before, a trait my mom always tells me I got from my dad.

On the second-to-last day of the trip, I realized that I had visited all of the sites on my list except for the renowned Picasso Museum. Determined to see it before I left, I navigated to the museum. I witnessed works from Picasso’s red and blue periods and was able to view his renowned interpretation of Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez. Afterwards, I enjoyed some strawberry gelato. It was in that moment that I fully recognized the magnitude of the past two weeks. I felt so good, almost better than I ever had before. It wasn’t just that I became even more independent; it was the feeling that I got from the experience; a feeling that I never want to forget. I felt free.

Experiencing Barcelona independently taught me a lot about my capabilities and the true value of going off the grid. I realized that I could have a great time on my own and didn’t always need to be with others. I now feel more confident and secure with myself.

Losing my phone was unfortunate, but sometimes life’s mishaps have a way of bettering us. I now can more readily appreciate where I am and what I am doing, regardless of whether anybody knows about it. While I continue to appreciate the value of social media and envision myself in the media and culture industry in the future, I recognize that there is a limit to the benefits of digital documentation. To this day, I turn off my phone as much as possible to enjoy where I am.

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Kate’s College Essay — Community Service Ecuador

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Kate, left, with friends on her Community Service Ecuador program.

Kate, left, with friends on her Community Service Ecuador program.

Kate Green, of Stonington, Connecticut, traveled with us on our summer community service program in Ecuador.  A graduating senior at the Marine Science Magnet High School, Kate wrote this essay on her time in Ecuador and the Galapagos. We enjoyed her reflections on cross-cultural connections and wish Kate the best of luck at the University of Virginia next year!

For three and a half weeks, I lived with other high school students from the U.S. in the small highland village of Chilcapamba, Ecuador. We helped rebuild the community’s church; built retaining walls; and fixed roads washed out from the rainy season. We played volleyball and soccer with the locals. We became a part of the community. On our last day, our host Alfonso took the group up to the village’s most sacred grounds – a freshwater spring. Here, he helped us perform a Quecha ritual to give thanks for the harvest. Afterwards, I had a chance to ask Alfonso about the spring. He explained how the spring was the village’s main source of water; how it comes directly out of the ground and is naturally filtered; and how the water’s been tested and is cleaner and healthier than bottled water. Alfonso spoke passionately about protecting the spring but also about the increasing need for fresh water in his village and others. And I suddenly found myself impassioned as well. These people depended on the water for their survival and so used it sparingly and respected the land from which it came. I wondered what the world would be like if everyone treated water and land the way the people of Chilcapamba do.

Alfonso speaks very little English and, though my comprehension was good, my Spanish-speaking skills were also lacking. But for those few minutes, we connected, and we understood each other.

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Grace’s College Essay — Community Service Costa Rica

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Grace on her Community Service Costa Rica program.

Grace on her Community Service Costa Rica program.

We loved this college essay on the strong group bonds formed on our high school community service program from St. Anne’s Belfield School senior Grace Culver. Grace traveled with us on our summer program in Costa Rica, and was accepted to the University of Virginia, Duke University, the College of William and Mary, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest University. We hope you’re as inspired by her words as we are, and that you’ll join us in wishing Grace the best of luck at the University of Virginia next year!

My friend and I had agreed beforehand, and we knew it was time. We made eye contact, sprang up from the table, threw off our shoes and jumped in the pool, laughing all the while. The rest of the group was beyond confused, but we were hoping they would understand what we were doing and join us in the fun. Seconds later, another girl jumped in, shoes and all. Following her, one by one, the entire group plunged into the water. We splashed, laughed, hugged and shed tears of sadness and joy. In that moment, when we were all fully clothed and squealing in the pool, there was an unparalleled feeling of euphoric unity, as if there were a force holding us together, imprinting all the trip’s memories in our brains and carving a permanent space for each other in our hearts.

I understand that my memory will fade over time, but I know for a fact that I will never, ever forget the connection I felt with each member of my group in our last minutes together in Costa Rica. I remember physically shaking from simultaneously feeling a huge range of intense, bittersweet emotions: elation, sentimentality, love, impending loss. The connection and feelings I experienced in that moment were unprecedented.

After just three short weeks full of incredible experiences, I felt a unity with the group unlike any connection I have ever known. How could I feel such strong unity with a group of strangers from all reaches of the globe when I had only known them for three weeks? After comparing these relationships to my relationships at home, I realized the key difference in our connections: shared experiences in challenging situations. At home, my friends and I go to the pool, out to dinner and on hikes. In Costa Rica, my group and I lived in a rural village in a foreign country, tried exotic foods, shared a hose as a shower and began to understand third-world poverty. The experiences with my group in Costa Rica were intense and challenging. Because we were alone in an unknown world, strangers to the environment and villagers around us, we connected to an extent that is uncommon. The bonds I made with each member of my group helped me realize the importance of communities and supportive relationships to us as humans. We are used to relying on close family and friends, but when those connections are not present, we strive to build new communities and can do so rapidly and powerfully.

Jumping in the pool together on our last night was the culmination of our countless experiences and, in that moment, I felt the love and connection that had grown within my group throughout the trip. I loved them for helping me create so many unforgettable memories, giving me perspective on my daily life, and most importantly, in those last moments, teaching me that challenging situations cause human bonds to grow quickly, deeply and forcefully.

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