- April 8, 2015
- Posted by: Anjana Sreedhar
- Category: Ambassador, Partner, Wednesday Wisdom
Today’s post comes from the co-founders of The Wandering Scholar, Shannon O’Halloran Keating and Tamara Walker. We celebrate their achievement in continuing to push students to think critically and engage in communities that aren’t familiar to their own.
The Wandering Scholar is a 501c3 nonprofit whose mission is to make international education opportunities accessible to low-income high school students.
It was founded in 2009 by Shannon O’Halloran Keating and Tamara Walker, after a chance meeting that revealed similar formative travel experiences. Both had traveled to Mexico on scholarships in high-school, and then studied abroad as college students in Argentina, in both cases with the help of generous scholarships. Without those scholarships, the trips would have been impossible, as well as with the experiences that came along with them and the opportunities both founders enjoyed thereafter.
In Shannon’s case, as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, she traveled with a small group of classmates who shared an interest in Spanish and a desire to escape the doldrums of the New Hampshire winter. Since the trip was organized through her school and took place during the academic year, no extra tuition or fees were required. “I would venture to say,” Shannon remembers, “that the same was true for a good portion of my fellow travelers. While your family’s financial status is not typically something you talk about as a group of teenagers, I do remember a moment when we were all trying to plan a weekend trip to the beach as group. It wasn’t part of the trip’s budget, so we were all going to need to pay our own way. For some students, this was going to be a real stretch, if not an impossibility.
Rather than give up on the idea, or worse, leave people behind, we got together and developed a group budget that would work for everyone – it was an important team building moment for us and also a turning point for me, realizing that I wasn’t the only one facing financial constraints.”
It was a series of key decisions, and financial sacrifices, on the part of her parents, that got her to a specific place (Exeter), where educational travel was not viewed as an “extra,” but rather as an integral part of the curriculum that all students could benefit from regardless of their financial background. In Shannon’s words, “This trip still stands out in my mind for a number of reasons: first of all, being a day student I was on my own for the first time; secondly, by the end of the trimester, I began thinking, dreaming, and mumbling in Spanish; but most importantly, I traveled and shared experiences with this diverse group of classmates.
We were not the typical homogenous group one would see traveling through France or Spain in the classic educational travel tour. That is what made the difference. We were thrown together to represent ourselves as a united front of, not only classmates, but also United States citizens.”
The trip had such an impact that she studied international relations at Georgetown University, completed her EdM in International Education at Boston University, and now, in addition to her role at The Wandering Scholar, works at General Assembly, a global company focused on workforce development for the digital age.
For Tamara, the trip to Mexico would not have been possible without the financial support of her private middle school. But the desire to go came from within. For much of her childhood, she did not know anyone who had studied abroad, much less gone to college or graduate high school. But she nonetheless had models of the kind of life she wanted to live. Her grandfather had served in the US Army, which to her was remarkable because of all of the places in the world he had traveled. “Because he came of age during a much different time than I had been raised in,” Tamara says, “his opportunities as a young black man from Alabama were much more constrained. I knew, and he made sure I knew, that I could see the world without putting my life on the line in the process.”
She kept her grandfather’s stories and guidance in mind on that first trip, relishing the luck that led her to having such a wonderful opportunity, and constantly thinking of ways to continue the streak. This experience led to her becoming a Spanish major at the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD student in at the University of Michigan. In both cases, she was able to draw upon her Mexico experiences (and more scholarship support) to study abroad in Argentina, where she had the chance to conduct independent research as part of her program.
From there, she says, “the decision to pursue graduate study in Latin American history was both a natural and easy choice, given my early international education experiences. I never doubted my ability to immerse myself in a foreign culture and conduct in-depth research, because I had already done so at such a young age.”
After graduate school, Tamara returned to UPenn as an Assistant Professor of Latin American History.
Because of the decisions Shannon and Tamara made following (and inspired by) those trips, they realized that an organization like The Wandering Scholar HAD to exist.
In addition to redefining who studies abroad, The Wandering Scholar is also rebranding what it means to receive funding for international travel.
Because we provide financial support, we increase economic and cultural diversity among youth traveling abroad. A traveling corps that represents the true cultural wealth of the US shows the world a more complex and accurate image of the US beyond the stereotypical monoculture represented in our media, and shows that we value diverse perspectives.
Moreover, students from low-income backgrounds have tremendous potential to serve as global leaders. They often share common ground with the youth of developing countries in terms of socioeconomic struggles, and can forge ties based on mutual empathy and support.
Further, by moving from a “scholarship” model to one focused on “educational fellowships,” we require students to play active roles in their international experiences by completing in-country documentation projects. Past projects include articles based on interviews with local youth, and a cookbook based on a host family’s recipes. Our scholars must step outside their comfort zones to ask questions and gather information, leading to more meaningful interaction than is possible on most student travel programs. This fosters multiple levels of intercultural dialogue – within traveling cohorts, across cultures, and while sharing lessons back at home – and provides new models for how all Americans can engage the world, no matter where they go or for how long.
Our program is a starting point for a lifetime of meaningful engagement with the world. Being a Wandering Scholar is a way to approach every new situation with an eye towards what you can you do to prepare yourself, what can you learn from it, and how can you take those learnings and meaningfully communicate them to others.
The point being, should they never travel internationally again, for whatever reason, they will still be able to approach each new, challenging life experience as an opportunity for discovery and growth – even when it’s taking place outside of a traditional classroom context.
“Wednesday Wisdom” is a weekly series curated by Everyday Ambassador Partnerships Manager Anjana Sreedhar. Every Wednesday, we will feature updates from our partners and reflections from the Everyday Ambassador community. To stay current with our latest posts, follow #wednesdaywisdom or #wordstoliveby on our other platforms, and check back regularly for updates.