I remember a frying pan encrusted with the remnants of beans and pork fat, empty two-liter bottles, and cautious stares as I worked on construction projects with my church youth group from Concord, NH. I remember piles of empty whiskey bottles, outhouses, and feeling like an outsider. And I remember the leaning, rusty trailer where 18 Ogalla Sioux somehow managed to live–right here in the United States–on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Traveling and experiencing another culture, seeing how others fare day-to-day in conditions far worse than my own in the peaceful small city of Concord impacted me greatly. While students can receive a great education within the confines of classroom walls, nothing is more impactful than being in a foreign place, interacting with another culture, and learning by direct experience through the five senses.
I’m fortunate to have just traveled with seven adults, including four teachers, our principal, a local chef, and a media producer to the Navajo Nation in Arizona. We brought eleven students from Fern Creek Traditional High School–four of whom had never boarded a plane.
When one student from our Fern Creek delegation counted 15 restaurants he could walk to from our school, the Navajo students could hardly believe it. Roughly the size of West Virginia, the Navajo Nation is a vast area, sparsely populated, with few private businesses. Commutes of sixty or more miles are common to reach the nearest grocery store or school. Traveling for necessities and services isn’t the only way in which the Navajo people are isolated–the digital world surges ahead while many on reservation are left to fend for themselves to simply gain cell phone reception or internet service. As we traveled by tour bus on some of the 2,000 miles of paved roads (West Virginia has 18,000 miles), I was continually struck by homes and trailers dotting the horizon, seemingly miles from the nearest neighbor.
For four days, we toured, met, and conferenced with Navajo leaders, teachers, and students. A Navajo delegation will be visiting us in Louisville in late April to continue a cultural and educational exchange. It’s still all sinking in, and I’m having a tough time coming up with the words to encapsulate the power of the trip. I’ll try to let some images do the talking.
I’ll share some student-created digital stories about the trip in a few weeks. In the meanwhile, I wonder about your experiences traveling. Have you ever been in a place that made you pause, consider walking in another man’s shoes, so to speak? What has been your most powerful travel experience? Were you able to get out of your comfort zone as a student and immerse yourself in a new place? What did you gain?