Generations of students inspired by Arizona teacher’s love of travelling with purpose.
By Megan Harris
9 a.m. isn’t typically a time you’d see a group of teenagers up and energized—let alone singing and dancing with their teacher as they dig an irrigation trench, passing buckets of dirt down an assembly line. Not typical, that is, unless you’re Jenny James. For this educator, such is the norm when your temporary classroom happens to be a schoolyard in the middle of rural Nicaragua.
At the time, she and her students from Xavier College Preparatory—an all-girls school in Phoenix, Arizona—were in Nicaragua on a ME to WE Trip. An immersive experience, the unique service learning trip invites travellers to visit and volunteer in a WE Villages community, while getting a taste of local culture and traditions. And, like Jenny, travellers could be inspired to start their own traditions, namely, a life-long passion for volunteer travel.
The teacher—who’s been the head of a classroom for the last two decades—has been running ME to WE Trips to Nicaragua now for six years. Her reasoning is clear: transformation. “[Once] at home, I’ve seen girls just be more conscientious about the world around them,” says Jenny. “They become aware of social issues and make small changes, things like what they’re consuming, water, the little things that we really do take for granted.”
Jenny started her trip tradition back in the summer of 2012. A former student had travelled to Kenya with ME to WE Trips and came back to school to share how the experience had changed her perspective on the world. Xavier College was looking into a new international trip option at the time and decided to give ME to WE a try. Its distance from the U.S. was doable, and it also had the added bonus of giving students the chance to practice their Spanish skills.
After the first student adventure, Jenny was hooked on how the trip opened the world up for her students. “Many of these girls do have the chance to travel,” says Jenny. “But this is unlike any travel that they can do on their own.”
Since then, every summer Xavier students return to visit a rural WE Villages partner community in Nicaragua. And each year, the educator who led that first journey abroad watches as the experience transforms a new group of students. “I wanted to come on this trip to experience something new and just get something out of my summer,” shares Taylor Dines, 16, who travelled on the 2017 trip alongside twin sister Maddie and 26 other classmates-turned-travel companions. “There are so many things on the trip that were new to me, things I had never done before—being out of the country without my parents, trying new food, volunteering on the build site, just seeing how everything is different in Nicaragua than at home.”
Like the other students, Taylor finished the trip with her volunteer hours completed for the year. Beyond that, though, she left Nicaragua with a lasting connection to classmates and a journal filled with stories ready to colour her college application.
With summer on the horizon, Jenny has started preparations to bring another 31 new students to Nicaragua this summer. To get them excited, she relies only on retelling the impacts of the school’s previous trips. She shares how some students, like Taylor, stepped out of their comfort zone; how some decided to break old habits and not buy bottled water; while others appreciate their education more—all because of individual, distinct experiences they had on the ground.
Then there’s Jenny’s own daughter, who went on the first trip in 2012 and afterwards decided to study food systems in university, inspired by her experience working on a school garden in Nicaragua. “I love being able to see the work each year in Nicaragua and share that with the girls,” says the educator and proud mom. “The first couple years, it was all about the excitement, the ‘ahh!’ before going. Now, I liken it to the feeling of being a teacher—every year, every day is new.”
That very first year Jenny and co. broke ground on the school’s library; other years they dug a new latrine, painted schoolyard benches and helped plant a school garden. Most recently in 2017, the girls worked hard to paint benches and dig trenches for a water irrigation system. As for the 2018 project? The group won’t know until they get there (projects always match up with the current need on the ground), but whatever it is, Jenny knows her students are ready to turn the project into lifelong impacts.