Education on the fly

Cultural connections open eyes and minds

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— Since Jordan and Matt Whitacre have been on spring break from The Lowell-Whiteman School, they've been hiking around their house everyday on a 5.2 mile loop preparing for their trek through Nepal.

And although nothing will compare to the ordeals the twin boys will endure with the Nepalese natives, the elevation and conditions in Nepal are much the same.

"We've lived in Europe and been to Europe and Morocco. I sort of have an idea of what it will be like on the streets in Thailand," freshman Jordan said.

The Whitacres are just two of the 54 students that will travel in groups to five different countries for the next month ? learning about cultures, the land and how to live without the comforts of America.

"We want to teach them that you can eat from a can of beans ? and that's dinner folks," said Margi Missling-Root, foreign trip coordinator for five years.

While students in the competitive ski program at the school work diligently from April 9 to May 4 to make up classes they missed during the year, the other students will be scattered across the globe as they get a hands-on experience of experiential learning.

In an attempt to enhance their knowledge of the world, its people and its land, students will be heading to Guatemala and Belize, the Bahamas, China, Nepal and Vietnam to understand the intricacies of foreign lands.

Those traveling over the lapis-lazuli waters of the Caribbean Sea to the Bahamian islands will study oceanography and the pollution on the coral reefs from a school on a boat.

Others will be taking the long journey, crossing the International Date Line and the Pacific Ocean, to study ancient Chinese culture.

Because of the recent tumultuous relationship with the United States and China, Missling-Root said the Lowell-Whiteman faculty has been making calls to the state department to understand the travel implications. The state department said there is no warning for Americans traveling to China.

Missling-Root said parents have not shown great concern, nor have students.

"When we called Dr. Phillips and told him about what was happening in China, he said, 'I'm writing President Bush right now telling him to apologize to the Chinese so our children will be safe,'" Missling-Root said.

While those students are walking along the Great Wall of China, some students will be visiting the battlefields and Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam.

Others will be kayaking and snorkeling in Belize after hiking in the Guatemala highlands.

And Missling-Root and her group of students will be trekking through the mountains of Nepal, teaching students tolerance, compatibility and communication.

"Our program is based on more life lessons than book lessons," Missling-Root said. "They learn how to do for others ... dealing with different foods and cultures. We try to do it with a lack of familiar comforts. It's a whole life experience."

Jordan Whitacre said snowshoeing to the McNamara Huts in the 10th Hut Division outside of Aspen was a bonding experience that helped him build better relationships with members of his group traveling to Nepal.

"I think our group is probably one of the best," Jordan said. "We did one exercise with a tent pole and we had to lower it with just one finger. It taught us cooperation."

Sometime before spring break and their foreign trip, students and their two group leaders go on a weekend excursion to bond and observe each other. A chance to get inside the heads and hearts of their peers that soon will become housemates for the next month. A "final wrapping of the present."

Missling-Root said many people don't understand experiential learning and the significance it has on the children. In her 10th foreign trip with The Lowell-Whiteman School, Missling-Root said the experience of smelling and seeing foreign land and discovering alternate ways to communicate helps the children mature.

"It's amazing how I've witnessed the kids grow," Missling-Root said. "We try very hard to make them as individual as possible because we all become leaders."

Although the month-long trips overseas are to different places, the cost to Lowell-Whiteman families is $3,400 for each child. And either a student goes on the foreign trip program, or he or she is a competitive skier. Traveling is a requirement at Lowell-Whiteman.

The two faculty members that travel with the children each year, usually are partnered with one experienced teacher and one nonexperienced.

And because a group of 12 faculty remain in Steamboat with the competitive ski program students, teachers have the chance to travel with a group every other year, Missling-Root said.

Two months before the foreign trip, students research their country's history, give presentations, learn a small portion of the language and customs and create their itinerary.

"Every Monday for two month we got together with our group doing exercises on what to do in Thailand," Jordan said.

Doing foreign land research was part not of the curriculum in 1958 when the foreign trip program first began.

When mud season became so overwhelming in the late 1950s, the faculty, staff and students went to San Miguel, Mexico, to continue school. Eventually, that trip ignited sparks with other teachers who then wanted to take senior trips in the early '80s.

When the competitive ski program began in 1989, Lowell-Whiteman administrators decided that the two programs could balance each other well.

"Just getting kids out there just doing, just learning," Missling-Root said. "When you're sedentary, your life becomes limited. They start the year out getting closer with themselves, nature and humankind. They have the contact to build relationships in that natural environment."

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