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A Window on the World: Thurgood Marshall Academy’s Abroad Initiative Enters its 5th Year

Spanish language immersion. Hiking through the mountainous rain forest. Learning indigenous arts from families in rural villages. Sampling Costa Rican cuisine. “I can already picture it,” says Junior Asia Boulware. “The warm, fresh, clean air. The busy roads and marketplaces. The beautiful, immense jungle.”

Sounds like a dream come true? These are the scenes that students at Thurgood Marshall Academy look forward to when they commit to the Abroad Initiative, an after-school club focusing on language immersion, community service, and international travel.

The Abroad Initiative launched five years ago, in 2009, when Spanish Teachers Ali Campot, Jessie Yaun, and Marielys Garcia (now Thurgood Marshall Academy’s Director of Academic Support) drew inspiration from the success of a similar program at nearby Ballou High School.

394The founders of the Abroad Initiative were no strangers to international education. Ms. Yaun, for example, lived in Mexico during high school as part of a Rotary Club student exchange program and spent her first year of college at the University of Barcelona in Spain. She also worked in Ecuador during college, first at a home for abandoned girls, and later at an elementary school.

Ms. Yaun says that bringing this type of international experience to her students, especially while in high school, was important because her “initial abroad experience was by far the most enriching I have ever had. I want my students to have that kind of an experience too.” Sophomore Kiara Clark, a member of the Abroad Initiative, agrees. “Most of us have never had the chance to experience other cultures,” Kiara explains, while Freshman Menkhuta Whaly believes that “these types of new experiences really help people learn.”

Given the responsibility in representing Thurgood Marshall Academy abroad, and the expense involved in international travel, students must apply and be accepted to the Abroad Initiative. To be accepted, students submitted essays on their belief in the importance of international experience, how international travel complemented their academic or professional goals, the types of cultural experiences they hoped to have while abroad, and reflected on their willingness to adapt to a radically different environment – often without the comforts of home.

Students also committed to fundraising activities throughout the school year – including an after-school bake sale – in order to raise money for the trip’s expenses. This year, six students were accepted to the Abroad Initiative.

While some students shy away from the challenge of adapting to a new culture, those in the Abroad Initiative see it as an opportunity for growth and enlightenment. Kiara sees the Abroad Initiative as a chance to grow “more independent because it removes me from my normal environment to which I am accustomed,” while Menkhuta forsees “learning and experiencing lifelong lessons that will shape me into a better person.”

This year’s Abroad Initiative cohort already have they eyes on the future, noting the value of this type of international experience when applying to internships or jobs. Junior Micah Pledger wants to “learn Spanish fluently because it will offer me more job opportunities,” noting the value that many internships or employers place on foreign language proficiency, while Asia, who aspires to be a Nurse Practitioner, says that “having the opportunity to help children in need in other countries was always a goal for me.”

Thurgood Marshall Academy alumnus Seker Anderson (TMA ’14), now a freshman at Bates College in Maine, travelled to Costa Rica during the summer of 2012 and confirms the aspirations of the students currently in the Abroad Initiative. For Seker, his experience in Costa Rica helped him “realize that life isn’t the same everywhere you go and that traveling in order to socially develop a society is something I might want to do as a career.” Based on his own experiences, Seker offered advice to Thurgood Marshall Academy students who aspire to study abroad: “Don’t be ethnocentric on your trip. Be open to learning about life outside of America it will make your trip worthwhile.”