You’ll pardon Jordan Tyler, Chelsea Geruschadt, Raina Bradley and Katelyn Ripple if their thoughts occasionally drift from social studies, algebra 2 and physics back to what they absorbed this summer in Italy, Argentina, Spain and Costa Rica respectively.
Jordan: "My experience could be described as amazing, fun, life-changing, unforgettable."
Chelsea: "My experience was once in a lifetime."
Raina: "My trip to Spain was extremely memorable."
Katelyn: "I experienced more in a month than I thought I would experience in a lifetime."
A dozen Pittsburgh area high school seniors-to-be stepped out of their classrooms and into the world this summer, broadening their learning experiences by spending a month immersing themselves in the culture of another country.
For the last 10 years the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh’s Global Travel Scholars program has sent 103 Pittsburgh area students on full scholarship to 27 countries from China to Morocco, from Botswana to Japan.
David Murdoch, a council board member and the creator of this program, said the scholars have been able to interject the word “international” into their lives.
“So for us, this has been a very special thing to identify talent among young people and skills, intelligence and integrity where they also have a shortage of funds, to provide scholarship monies for these kind of students is to give them a breakthrough in life that means they’ll be more successful later," Murdoch said.
The students were selected following an extensive process. Ninety-five were nominated by teachers or mentors. Applicants then wrote an essay about their country of choice; 36 underwent an intensive interview, and finally the top 12 were chosen for the program.
Each student selected a focus area of study within their selected country. Jordan Tyler attends Pittsburgh Science and Technology academy. His emphasis was on the architecture in Italy.
“I got a chance to see everything from the ancient to the more modern buildings," he said. " My favorite was the Duomo in Florence. It was beautiful because all of the colors that they used were very unique. I have never seen a green and white color scheme in a building before and for it to be as ancient as it is, a lot of people are still using this building, well this cathedral I should say.”
Jordan’s classmate, Justin Hardin, traveled to South Korea to focus on peace studies.
“Peace studies is actually really important there because their relationship with the country up north is really in trouble, so peace studies is what should be done there right now,” Hardin said.
Katelyn Ripple from Sewickley Academy wanted to focus on ecology, biodiversity and sustainability in Costa Rica’s rain forest, and said she was impacted by her guides.
“We did a lot of living with nature in the rain forest with animals. Did a lot with sea turtles and saw every monkey in Costa Rica," she said with a laugh. "They (the guides) just taught me so much about their way of life and I want to metamorph my life to be more like theirs because they’re just so in tune with nature and conserving the environment and learning from the environment and I feel that impacted me the most.”
But it’s not just photos and memories, World Affairs Council President Steve Sokol said this current group of scholars and their predecessors have had a wide-ranging impact back home.
“They’re the core of a ripple effect that has really gone through their families, their communities, their schools," Sokol said. "We hear over and over again how these students come back and engage the people in their immediate environment and how they are then able to learn and benefit from the experience of these individual students.”
Raina Bradley, now a senior at Pittsburgh Perry High School, studied the three major cultures in Spain and is telling underclassmen that it might be a bit scary at first, but it’s worth it.
“I feel that now that I’m back it’s awesome to tell people and have them know my stories," Bradley said. "But I want a lot of people experience that themselves.”
According to Katelyn Ripple, since returning she is "big on recycling."
"My community doesn’t have that and I’m trying to start that by going to town council meetings," Ripple said. "At my school I’ll have a 'Kids’ Day' soon and tell them about my experience and get them excited about world travel.”
Jordan Tyler is also bringing his experiences to other students.
“I’ve been giving presentations about how cultural differences are not as big as you think and to know that everyone is essentially the same with their differences due to heritage, location, it just let’s you know we’re all humans,” he said.
Ask any of the students and they will tell you this learning experienced has changed them.
"You learn a lot about yourself that you will take with you the rest of your life," Chelsea Geruschadt said. "You become someone else after a trip like this. Whenever you become someone else you impart that on the people around you that causes them to look within themselves, and so by changing yourself, you kind of change the people around you and that can just change anything"
Katelyn, Raina, Chelsea and Jordan said they are no longer just Pittsburghers. Their borders have expanded.
Katelyn: “Since I have a family in Costa Rica and friends in Costa Rica, and I’ve seen the entire country pretty much, it just changed the way I look at the world and makes me want to travel more.”
Raina: “I feel like I’m still a Pittsburgher but I would love to still be continuously elsewhere. Now that I’ve gone and seen past the Pittsburgh limit, I know you can go anywhere.”
Chelsea: “You make a lot of connections in your country and you make a lot of connections within your group. You’re not just a Pittsburgher or an Argentine. Wherever your people are form, you just get connections all over the world.”
Jordan: “I am still a Pittsburgher but I would love to call my self an international. Pittsburgh is such a nice place, but while I was over there I saw that no matter how different we are we have so many similarities and we can appreciate the differences we have.”
And that’s exactly one of the goals of the Global Travel Scholars program, according to Steve Sokol.
“I think it’s important for young people to have international opportunities like this because we live in such an interconnected world," he said. "Even if one stays in southwestern PA, the world is coming here as well. So we as a region need more people who have cross-cultural competence and are globally literate, globally competent and can engage with people with other world backgrounds and other world views.”
The next group of young global scholars leaves Pittsburgh for countries around the world in June.