by Kim Major
As we sit on the runway in Atlanta it’s hard to not feel a bit wistful for the trip that is on the cusp of its finale. No gallo pinto tomorrow. No strong and amazingly flavorful coffee. No monkeys, exotic birds, or the deepest of greens all around. No smiles and holas from Erick and Enrique our guide and driver. No new adventures around the corner with sights that make me draw my breath in with a not-so-silent gasp.
No, it is back to life as I knew it. But, really, it’s not. Just like the students with whom I travelled, this experience has changed me. In our reflections, we often asked our students to frame their Costa Rica experience with a series of “what” questions: WHAT did I do (narrative), SO WHAT – how did this experience impact me, NOW WHAT – now that I’ve learned this, what will I do with this knowledge.
The WHAT has been thoroughly and beautifully covered by trip participants throughout the blog. I think the SO WHATs have been scattered with subtle awe throughout as well. For our students, I think the NOW WHAT is still forming – it won’t be until after re-immersion into day-to-day life that the impact can truly be known. As for me, over the course of the last 12 days, the NOW WHATS have come to me in dribbles and then, at times, in waves of what I like to call BFOs (blinding flashes of the obvious). Writing this blog entry gives me the opportunity to try to collect them in some coherent way. So here goes…
I studied French in school a long (very long) time ago. Aside from the occasional adios, I knew no Spanish. So, for months before the trip I tried my best to teach myself the basics of the language. After putting that to practice [some] and hearing it spoken all around me, I realized I want to learn the language not for the trip or future travel but because it is beautiful and I want to be the person who knows multiple languages, not the one who thinks everyone should speak mine. Now what? Now I continue to study the language with greater depth.
I have led service trips before with another school, but never internationally. In fact, aside from Canada (and sorry, dear husband of mine, Canada does not count) I had never before traveled internationally. Before this experience, I thought my top travel destinations were typical sightseeing spots in Europe or pure “fun” beach or ski vacations. But after visiting the cloud forest in Monteverde and the remote beaches of Tortuguero, and after immersing myself in the culture of a community off the beaten path, what I really want in future travel is to go to the places not as well traveled. To see flora and fauna that may not exist if we do not care for the environment. Sure, I want some time reading a book on a beach, but just as much, I want to look for more eco and adventure travel experiences – particularly those that, like in Costa Rica, serve to both enhance the local economy and provide resources to protect the environment.
Speaking of the environment, I was blown away by how Ticos and Ticas respect the environment. Ticos practice an environmental stewardship model of environmentalism by conserving, appreciating and valuing nature as ancient cultures did. I love George School, and we do an OK job with recycling but we have so much more we can do—particularly in the dorms. As a dorm parent, I want to do more to encourage my residents to consistently recycle. I have always cared for and about our natural resources, but I know I can do a lot more.
A more subtle NOW WHAT came through reading student journals. Students often remarked that they thought they would do more service on the trip, and then later noted all the learning about themselves and the outside world that had taken place. A big lesson for me is that if I have the opportunity to chaperone service learning trips in the future (my hand is already raised to volunteer), I can do a better job of framing the goals. In reality, in an 11-day trip, the total impact of the service a group our size can do is small. Minuscule, really. But, that does not mean it doesn’t matter. However, the purpose of the trip is not just service in the community—it is promoting shifts in thinking. If our students push themselves out of their comfort zones, they expand their worldview and may be more likely to stretch themselves to help others in the future. If they gain deeper understanding of and appreciation for different cultures and communities, they are more likely to reach out to strangers because they have seen firsthand that the differences between people really are not as vast as they might think they are on the surface. If they stand in awe of nature in a new way, they are more likely to work to respect and steward the environment at home. Sure, beach cleanups, playground rejuvenation and school visits have meaning, but I argue that the most far-reaching change that comes from trips like ours is the change inside each of us. I hope to do a better job of articulating that on future trips.
I am sure that for me, like our students, more lessons will come to me as the summer progresses. Parents, I encourage you to talk to your children about their NOW WHATs. Ask them to go beyond the store of photos in their phones. Ask them to describe the trip beyond the lodge reviews and review of the sites. Ask them about the impact on themselves. I know I will continue to ask myself what change will come in me from the trip. For now, however, I am so grateful that George School views experiences like this one as critical for students, I am glad I was able to participate in THIS trip, with THIS group, at THIS time. It was magical. And, I am certain of two things. First, I will return to Costa Rica. While I know I saw, experienced, and appreciated so much, I also know that the next time around I will see, feel, appreciate, and respect the country and its people even more. Like reading a great book, in the first pass you see it in broad, beautiful and inspiring strokes. The second? You notice the details, the nuances, the hidden beauty and deeper meaning you missed the first time. Costa Rica inspired me to see its details and, if I am lucky, more of the details in the world around me at home.
The other certainty? By the end of the summer I will find the winning gallo pinto recipe….
Thank you, George School, and 2017 Costa Rica service learning trip participants for a trip I will never forget!