The world is a new global classroom for lucky students at many of Canada's independent schools.
International travel and education programs – ranging from community service tours to exchange programs to international youth conferences – offer students a rich variety of opportunities for developing their cultural awareness and a deeper understanding of how others live.
Working as a volunteer on a service project can often be inspirational and foster a desire to do more, as it did for 16-year-old Eduardo Sutherland, a Grade 11 student at St. George's School, an independent boys school in Vancouver.
Last spring break, he worked at Project Somos, a community for at-risk mothers and their children in rural Guatemala. Alongside fellow students and local Guatemalan workers, he helped dig trenches for an irrigation pipe for the community's arts and culture building. While the physical work was hard, he enjoyed it as a great team-building experience and plans to go back.
"Working on this project changed my perspective on the world," Mr. Sutherland says. "I realized, just by giving two weeks of my free time, that you can make a difference to people who need help in an isolated place. It was a great experience that I'd never had before – and improved my Spanish, too."
Heather Morris, head of service learning at St. George's School, says the main goal of the Guatemala Service Tour is for students to live and work at Project Somos, but also for them to have cultural experiences, such as visiting Mayan ruins with Mayan elders.
The school has an ongoing partnership with Project Somos, rather than choosing a different location ever year, so they can see it progress to the point of becoming self-sufficient. Generally about 10 to 15 students volunteer to go at a time. The students and their families pay all the costs – about $3,000 per student – and participate in a fundraiser with the money going toward materials for the project, not student travel.
"We recognize that involvement in a program that takes students overseas is a privilege," Ms. Morris says. "We're capped on the number of students we can take. It's just one small piece of the many things we're doing locally and globally."
Global exposure at Lakefield College School in Lakefield, Ont., encompasses a student-exchange program drawing from more than 150 schools around the world as well as community service projects and adventure-based trips such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Gerry Bird, Lakefield's director of international programs, says service projects planned for next March break include Tanzania, Costa Rica and Ecuador Galapagos. The work varies from project to project and might include road construction, farm chores, planting trees or going into a rain forest to build latrines. The thinking behind the service trips is largely to expand the student's world view and show them that not everybody around the world lives with the same standard of living or has the same culture.
"We try to make it as hands-on as possible," Mr. Bird says. "The students get their hands dirty and work with the local people directly as part of a team in pretty challenging conditions, often outside their comfort zones. In the Galapagos, a lot of the work is eradication of invasive species to help improve the habitat for the giant tortoises. When I was there a few years ago, we also painted a local kindergarten classroom."
Mr. Bird typically aims for a balance of about 60 per cent service to 40 per cent cultural interaction and sightseeing. The cost of the trips is paid by the individual students and their families, so can be prohibitive for many – from $3,900 for Costa Rica to $5,500 for Tanzania. The trips are designed to be revenue neutral so the school doesn't make money, Mr. Bird explains, but the cost of international travel is high, so there's also a bursary program to help students who couldn't otherwise afford to go.
"For some students, it's the first time they've been in an environment that's very different from the people they've associated with," Mr. Bird says. "We encourage them to be open to new experiences and not make comparisons with how things work back in Canada. Some kids just blossom and relish the chance to interact with local people. It really provides an opportunity for students to expand and utilize the skills that they have beyond the classroom."
As part of their global programming, Lakefield also sends students to the annual Round Square International Conference, a worldwide network of 160 schools in 40 countries. That created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Jacob Kee, 17, a Grade 12 student at Lakefield who attended Round Square last year in Singapore and Borneo. He applied because "Asia seemed like such a cool place to visit and it was in Singapore which is a tech-y kind of country." He describes his experience as awesome.
"We were put into groups with students from all over the world to try and solve some real global issues," says Mr. Kee, who still keeps in touch with friends he made there. "I gained more of a global viewpoint as opposed to my small world in Canada. For example, my values were different from someone from Bangladesh where there's a denser population and not enough clean water. I could see how housing and water were much more of an issue for them than it had been for me."
On returning to school after the conference, he joined the model United Nations club and later signed up for a model UN conference at the University of Toronto.
"We talked about the issues that were going on in Rio at the time which was really interesting," Mr. Kee says. "To be honest, I probably wouldn't have done those things without that first experience."
As a UNESCO school, the Calgary French and International School (CFIS) strives to create first-hand cross-cultural experiences for all students using the United Nations educational, scientific and cultural framework of values. So multi-lingual travel studies are a natural fit for this French immersion school with a flourishing Spanish language program that starts in Grade 4. By Grade 9, students are ready for a trip to Costa Rica that includes some conservation work at a wildlife centre.
"The purpose of this trip is both cultural and Spanish immersion," says Kristine Gagnon, a science teacher and travel co-ordinator at CFIS. "Costa Rica is the most bio-diverse country in the world, so it's also an opportunity for them to connect with what they're learning in the science classroom. Other activities might be hiking in the wild for bird watching or night walks."
All of their trips, both service and cultural, have similar goals, Ms. Gagnon explains. When travelling with students, they try to give them leadership roles and opportunities to develop their confidence and problem solving while away from home.
"Travel changes a lot of the stereotypes students might have about what a developing country is like," Ms. Gagnon says. "They're often surprised that it's not as bad or as dangerous as they may have imagined. They're going into schools and meeting other kids, connecting with them and realizing that these kids are just like them.
"It ignites a desire to want to be a global citizen in the future. We have a lot of graduates pursuing university programs and careers that are in international affairs, humanitarian work or social justice issues. That's truly what I'm hoping we inspire."