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Some of the students at Ballou High School in Southeast have spent their entire lives in D.C., never venturing far outside the city's borders. Until now. A study abroad program at Ballou is taking these kids on adventures thousands of miles from home.
Seventeen-year-old Shawnquinetce Davis has just come back from the Dominican Republic. She’s at school, sharing photos with other students. "This is us painting a mural," she explains. "It says ‘Love Your Mother’ and that’s in Spanish."
Davis and other travelers got new passports, read up about local customs and made it through what everyone agreed was the scariest part — the plane ride! "First time I’ve been on a plane, first time I’ve been out of the country and I got a window seat!" she says.
Lawrencia Odem, also 17, was with a group that traveled to London and Paris last year. "In France, I was scared because I don’t speak French and I couldn’t really communicate with them, they would think something’s wrong with me," she remembers.
Allison Baugher, the Spanish teacher at Ballou High School, is like a mother hen around her students. When she first came here, she was surprised by how little her students had traveled. And she doesn’t just mean around the U.S.
"I often meet students and they haven’t been to the National Mall. I have to be very careful the way I ask students about the Mall, because they say which was Pentagon? Iverson? Which one are you talking about?" she says.
So five years ago Baugher started a travel abroad program, and so far approximately 50 students have gone to Ghana, Spain and Ecuador, among other countries, usually for a week to 10 days. Sometimes, as 18-year-old Isaiah Prophet discovered when he went to the Dominican Republic, you have to go far away to learn things about yourself.
"I wanted to go to prove to myself, ain’t nothing special about it there. But once I got out there my views changed totally. Everything about that country makes you happy!" he says.
The students who have travelled have experienced everything from new food to different sights.
"This is where we ate the best food in the world! The lady we were with made us dinner and she made us a vegetarian pasta it was amazing!" remembers Davis, showing pictures to her friends.
Odem says they did a lot of sightseeing. "In London, we went to Buckingham Palace, we went to the original Hard Rock Café. In Paris, we saw the Eiffel Tower, I really enjoyed the Palace of Versailles," she says.
But not every experience was fun. Odem once got on a train not realizing her group wasn’t coming with her. "I was scared for my life. There are a lot of stores about people getting snatched in Paris and sold I thought I was lost forever!"
Luckily someone on the train spoke English and helped her out. Odem says she would never have asked for help in D.C. "I would never have asked for help on the Metro here even if I didn’t know where I was going. [S]omething about American people that we always keep our guard up. ‘Cause I don’t want to be cursed out or have someone angry at me for having asked a question," she says.
Odem says she would not usually help anyone else, but that was before the trip. "And if someone was to ask me today on the Metro I would help them happily. I think I would even walk them to where they needed to go! 'Cause that was one of the worst experiences of my life. Being lost," she says.
Teacher Allison Baugher says students almost seem to go through a physical transformation during their travels.
"I remember reading Isiah’s journal, and we asked him to reflect on what sort of contribution they think they can make. And he said very honestly, 'I don’t think I have anything to contribute, I don’t think I will make an impact.' It almost made me want to cry," she says.
While helping a family build a house, Prophet says he realized he did have something to offer. Everyone had something to offer. He watched six-year-old children who helped mix cement.
"It taught me a real good definition of hard work and work ethic. Because here I really don’t like to get dirty, but there you just embrace it. The more dirty you got your clothes, the more hard work you put in. So if I wasn’t dirty I wasn’t doing my job," he says.
Students also realized they had many blessings. They have more money than people in many other parts of the world. Women here can go to school. And hands down, American pizza is the best! But perhaps the biggest lesson these students have learned is to reach out to others.
"Now when I pass people I say ‘Hello,’ ‘Good morning.' Before I was scared to go to college. Now I know I’m going to make friends. I’m going to be more open, to accept others. Before the trip I was shy and reserved and I only spoke to people I knew. I smile more, I don’t think I ever smiled as much so I’m trying to condition myself to smile more," he says.
It costs approximately $3,000 for each student to participate in the program. They hold bake sales, sell t-shirts and auction student art. The next group is going to Zambia for three weeks, and students are frantically fundraising for the trip. Yazmene Roper, who's 16, says she can't wait.
"I’m sitting here and getting so excited! I want to see what experiences I can get from my trip!" she says.
The students continue to flip through photos and point to one of them on the beach in the Dominican Republic jumping in the water.
"I’ve never been to the beach before. Beautiful water, pretty sand. It made me feel warm inside, like you know how you feel when you want to do something but you think you would never think you’ll have the time. And then you finally do it, and its breathtaking inside."
For more information or to donate, email Allison Baugher.
Music: "Why Study Abroad" by Jack Meets the Giant from Home Recordings Vol. 1