This week, the New Global Citizen is publishing a series of pieces about America’s Unofficial Ambassadors’ School-2-School program, which combines virtual cultural exchange, community-based fundraising, and direct volunteering to advance goals related to education and mutual understanding at the grassroots level in the United States and the Muslim World. Here, Benjamin Orbach, founder and director of AUA, discusses how the School-2-School program benefits volunteers and host organizations alike. You can read Part I and Part II of the series here.
School started this week, and Hannah D’Apice and Sam Schindler returned to their classrooms in Dallas, Texas and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At some point, they’ll look at their students and ask themselves, “How in the world do I explain what I did over the summer?”
Hannah is a 6th grade teacher at T.W. Browne Middle School, and Sam is a high school teacher at Lancaster Country Day School. Through Creative Learning’s School-2-School program, they served as unofficial ambassadors to the Muslim World this summer. While they taught and dispelled stereotypes, they also learned more than they ever could have imagined.
Creative Learning has been running School-2-School for almost a decade. The program brings together an American school with a school in a developing country for a virtual exchange. At the same time, the American school raises money for needed school supplies like books or computers. In 2012, we incorporated an “unofficial ambassador” component to the program where the lead educator from an American school travels to a partner school to volunteer for 2-4 weeks. That first year, Brittney Scott, a middle school teacher in Colorado Springs traveled to Jordan and trained her counterparts at a school comprised mostly of refugees to use the electronic white board that she and her students raised the funds to purchase.
We expanded the program in 2013 when Hannah and Sam volunteered in Indonesia and Bangladesh, respectively. Hannah spent two weeks at the Sukma Bangsa school in Aceh, the site of the 2004 tsunami that killed 250,000 people. Hannah taught classes on American culture and history, and her lessons varied from an introduction to American government and the separation of powers to teaching students to sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
These types of cross-cultural exchanges are priceless. Hannah was one of the first Americans any of the 300 students at the school had met. For her to spend two weeks there was an opportunity to change their stereotypes of Americans. As Hannah recounted, “One of the teachers said that she thought Americans were all arrogant jerks.” She continued, “They were able to make that connection and able to speak to someone from this place they had heard something about, but didn’t necessarily have exposure to.”
Victor’s Yasadhana, the school’s director, explained that the students come from remote areas. “All they know is about Aceh…” he said. “Practicing our English is a [positive] side effect. The main advantage is to have a real person talking about their country and something different than our culture. Our students listen and learn.”
It was the same for Sam who volunteered in rural Bangladesh at The Carter Academy, a boarding school established to give rural children a chance to escape poverty. For two weeks, Sam taught English and poetry to scores of students, but his greatest success was the “soft power” of his service. Upon Sam’s arrival, many of TCA’s students were too intimidated to speak English with native speakers, particularly white people. By the time he left, Sam was an uncle, and the boys couldn’t stop talking in idioms. In the videos that the school recorded of Sam in the classroom and on campus, his students radiate smiles and confidence. Hasan, one of his students, wrote of Sam, “If in every school of Bangladesh there is one Mr. Sam, than every child will become a great man in his life.”
Heartwarming stories for sure, but the beauty of how School-2-School has evolved is that this program is a real exchange. Sam and Hannah, and by extension their communities, benefit, too. Their service was the culmination of several months of partnership. In Hannah’s case, students who had never heard of Indonesia a year ago spent the spring skyping with their counterparts on a regular basis. After the Boston bombings, Hannah’s students responded to news that the bombers were Muslim by rejecting the equation that “Muslim equals terrorist” and instead, saying that their “friends in Indonesia are Muslim, too.”
T.W. Browne is a “Title I” school and students’ issues outside of school often spill into the classroom. For example, some students come to school hungry. For Hannah, working with the students in Aceh was “inspiring.” She found common ground with the different but equally difficult challenges that teachers and students’ grapple with. She loved how they worked together to “achieve at the highest levels … and to be excited about learning.”
Sam gained a similar energy from his volunteer work. In his case, he reconnected with his love for teaching. He reflected, “I’m just some guy. I’m not a celebrity, but anything I did was special to them…I loved it. I felt like I was accomplishing something great. This was the best teaching experience I’ve ever had.”
For years, School-2-School has supported improved educational opportunities in tough places. Yet, the volunteer component we’ve added to this program has made School-2-School a true exchange and created avenues for change to reverberate here at home. The American school may be the one to raise funds for a small project, but the partner school plays the role of host and offers its own opportunity for inspiration and discovery.
When we engage in these citizen diplomacy exchanges, we frequently focus on what we have to offer and how we are going to help. What makes the people-to-people connection work though, is that, as we humbly realize in the end, we gain as much as we give.