Dana and Que’Shawn Take DCPS Study Abroad!

"It opened my eyes to the world": DCPS program organizes, funds summer trips abroad
Posted on 11/12/2018

senior at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast, Dana J. Dudley usually spends a lot of his time thinking about upcoming football games. But standing in the Roosevelt High School atrium on a late September evening in front of his laptop computer, he’s showing off a photo of him and other students sitting atop camels in a dune-filled desert — a memento of his two-week trip to Morocco, which was fully funded by DC Public Schools.

“Before I went, everything was football,” he said. “But while I was there, I didn’t want to hear about football at all.”

At a September showcase, H.D. Woodson High School senior Dana J. Dudley shared photos and stories of his two-week trip to Morocco over the summer. (Photo by Taylor Mulcahey)

The atrium was full of students like Dudley who spent time over the summer outside the country through a three-year-old DCPS program and gathered Sept. 20 for the school system’s Study Abroad Showcase. Visitors wandered between tables, asking students from different schools and different grades what they had learned while overseas.

Dudley shared stories about a family he met on the trip, which included Hadijah, with whom he stayed during the program, and her son Aziz, who volunteers regularly at a local community center teaching older women to read. Their hospitality really struck Dudley, and he said that after returning from the program he “hopes to instill a lot more hospitality” in his own community.

Dudley was one of about 450 students who traveled abroad this summer as part of the DCPS study abroad program, which wrapped up its third year in August with trips to locales such as Panama, Spain, Peru, Costa Rica and China. The program began in January 2016 under the leadership of then Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Henderson, who taught world languages before becoming chancellor, advocated for a global education program in District public schools.

“Henderson was really inspired about the opportunity to connect students to travel, especially students who haven’t had the opportunities to travel through their school or personal lives,” said Kayla Gatalica, DCPS manager of global programs. About 77 percent of all DCPS students last year were considered economically disadvantaged.

During the 2015-2016 school year, the District received a large private donation from the DC Public Education Fund to launch the program. It has since been incorporated into the city’s budget, and as of last year is now fully paid for by public funds.

Throughout the fall, DCPS has been recruiting eighth- and 11th-graders, as well as special-education certificate three, for the fourth iteration of the program. Written applications close today at 11:59 p.m., after which selected students will undergo an interview and a rigorous evaluation that prioritizes those who have never had the opportunity to travel abroad before.

Applicants compete against students at their own school, which is meant to mitigate inequities that might exist among schools. The maximum number of students that a school can send is determined by the school’s Title I percentage — the proportion of students receiving free and reduced-price meals — combined with the number of applications.

Travel ambassadors — educators selected beforehand to travel with the students — are heavily involved in the selection of students. DCPS representatives — including language instructors, health and wellness team members, staffers from the Division of Specialized Instruction and others — work with staffers from the mayor’s office to decide where the students will go and what they’ll do while abroad. They design a comprehensive program that accounts for not just educational goals but also the participating students’ social, cultural and emotional needs.

“Programs serve the whole child — we take the whole child abroad,” said Gatalica.  “It truly takes a village.”

About 450 students traveled abroad over the summer as part of the DC Public Schools study abroad program. The school system has been recruiting for next year’s program, with a Nov. 2 deadline for applications. (Photo courtesy of DC Public Schools)

Savannah Overton is the director of enrollment and regional partnerships at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown, and she has been a travel ambassador since the program started. She traveled with high school students to Peru in 2016, Senegal in 2017 and Ecuador in 2018.

It has been a longtime dream of hers to organize a program that would facilitate trips for students who had never had the opportunity to go abroad — allowing them to experience something new and to put into practice lessons they’ve been learning in their classrooms.

“They’re studying Spanish, French or Chinese, and they’re exposed to it on paper, but they don’t necessarily have something tangible to hold onto because they haven’t been outside of their immediate community,” Overton said.

The experience of traveling abroad can be life-changing for students and their families. Overton described a student whose aunt drove up from North Carolina to watch the bus leave for the airport get on the bus to leave.

“What it means is not just the trip itself,” Overton said. “It’s the opportunity, the hope. It’s a door that’s going to open that in many cases, in many families and for many generations, has been closed.”

Research by George Washington University on the DCPS program bears this out. Laura Engel, associate professor of international education and international affairs, wrote in a March 2018 article for Education Week that students on the 2017 trips reported “increased confidence in making friends”; new enthusiasm for studying a world language; “enhanced feelings of gratitude and motivation for learning”; and newfound interest in “studying, traveling, or working abroad in the future.” What’s more, having a passport for the first time was a point of pride.

H.D. Wodson High senior Que’Shawn Spriggs traveled to Ecuador this summer with Overton. He’s described by his mother as an “introvert,” which worried her before he went on the trip.

The first few photos she received confirmed her fears, as he hid in the background of photos. However, by the fourth day, the pictures she received looked different. Que’Shawn was smiling and surrounding himself with a group of kids.

“He went from not wanting to talk to other people and being shy to reaching out to others, saying ‘Thank you’ every day, and trying new things. He even tried guinea pig,” said Overton. “Everything that we did, he was the first one to do it.”

When describing his own experience in Ecuador, Que’Shawn spoke quietly, but his excitement was palpable. He described the food they ate and the way it was prepared, his experience teaching English to young students at a local school, his service project picking corn, and the way the equator affects your balance.

“If you close your eyes on the equator line and you try to walk straight, you would end up falling,” Que’Shawn said.

His sister, Miajah Spriggs, also traveled to Ecuador this summer on the eighth-grade trip, about a month after her brother. Their mother, who had never traveled abroad, was truly thankful that they both had the experience.

“It opened my eyes to the world as a whole,” said Que’Shawn, adding that the trip inspired him to want to travel more and even consider teaching as a profession after his experience working with the Ecuadorian students.

The visit to Ecuador was considered a service-learning trip, as are several of the trips each year. Students picked corn, leveled a sidewalk and scraped paint from an old sign. Overton uses these experiences to start conversations with the students about serving not only the community they’re visiting, but also their own communities back home.

As part of her showcase presentation, Jerlisa Parker, a senior at Ballou High School, said she learned that everyone can use their talents — no matter what they are — to make the world a better place. That was one takeaway from her trip to Ecuador with Que’Shawn’s group.

“I’m obviously very biased,” said Overton, “but I’m very serious when I say that this program is really changing lives. It’s not a doubt. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”