January is often a time when students are looking for opportunities to expand their horizons, literally and figuratively. Seniors are busy filling out scholarship applications for college or career training programs. Younger students are applying for educational learning trips that could take them to many places around world.
Students in the Roaring Fork Valley have many opportunities to explore other countries and cultures through school-sponsored trips and other exchanges. As part of Aspen Community Foundation’s overall focus on youth development, we support philanthropic efforts that enable local teens to travel outside the Roaring Fork Valley on educational learning trips.
One of those efforts is an annual trip to Normandy, France, where the Allies’ invasion turned the tide of World War II against Nazi Germany. Sponsored by local philanthropist Paul Bushong Jr. for the past three years, as many as a dozen students from high schools in the Aspen and Roaring Fork school districts have traveled to Normandy, under the guidance of an expert from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, for a glimpse of the famous Normandy beaches and a side trip to Paris.
Austin Pagan, a junior from Basalt High School, took the two-week trip to Normandy in 2019 and was struck by the experience in contrasting ways. “I feel the triumph of winning and freeing Europe, but I also feel the loss and the cost of war,” he said. “To see where these battles were fought is a whole different experience than just seeing a picture.”
Alejandro Angeles from Glenwood Springs High School also felt a reverence for the bravery and sacrifice of the Allied soldiers, but he was surprised at the warmth and kindness of the residents of Bayeux, the first major French city secured by the Allies in 1944.
“It was not until later that I realized they loved Americans so much for helping them during the war,” Angeles said. “It felt really nice that, to this day, Americans are still appreciated and thanked for their courage.”
Of course, traveling abroad provides more for teens than just a history lesson. Vanessa Leon-Gamez, from Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale, admitted she was scared to leave home at first but grew during the experience.
“Living in a small valley can sometimes make you afraid to branch out,” she said, “but this trip allowed me to seek discomfort, to approach people and make friendships I never thought I would make.”
For students interested in conservation, the McBride Africa Internship offers a two-week adventure with the people and wildlife of eastern Kenya. Launched in 2013 by Laurie and John McBride, nearly 66 Roaring Fork Valley students have participated. Anchored at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, students learn about the connection between wildlife and community and what it takes to ensure that both thrive.
Just about every student who has been part of the McBride Africa Internship has reported having their world view changed because of the experience.
James Blazier, a 2019 participant, said “There is nothing in my life that rivals my time spent at Lewa. I learned the importance of every moment and that the seemingly rapid movement of time isn’t what’s important in our lives; it’s the meaning we choose to give every day as we go about our normal lives.”
According to Chloe Brettmann, a 2016 participant, “You see all these big animals and these big, huge savannas and all these amazing passionate, driven people in the communities, helping themselves by protecting their animals and caring for them. You see all these big, amazing things and, until then, you hadn’t realized how small you’ve made your life.”
Aaron Garland, who has led the McBride Africa Internship since 2013, believes the experience has a remarkable and lasting impact on the young people who participate.
“What impresses me most is that I continue to get unsolicited correspondence from students from the earliest adventures, expressing how much those two weeks continue to mean to them to this day.”
There’s nothing like visiting another country to broaden your world view and help you develop a stronger understanding of history, language and geography. And educational travel continues to shape you long after the experience has ended. For these students, the hope is that they will use what they have learned and, perhaps, be more equipped as they move into adulthood.
As Garland says, he hopes these experiences have “played a role in planting a deep and thought-provoking seed in the curious mind of someone who will, with any luck, play an important role in our community someday.”
For more information about these particular educational learning opportunities, visit aspencommunityfoundation.org/apply/scholarships-2.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.