Ten years ago, the first group of Newark Academy students went on Immersion Experiences, discovering new cultures and places; now, the program is a vital part of the NA curriculum. The 10- or 16-day trips provide students with opportunities to learn by moving beyond their comfort zones. These experiences range from living with a host family in another country to exploring wilderness areas in the American Southwest.
In October 2008, the NA Board of Trustees voted unanimously to require each Upper School student, beginning with the Class of 2013, to engage in at least one cultural/linguistic, cultural/service-learning or wilderness Immersion Experience. Since then, students have traveled to Spain, France, India, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine, the desert Southwest and other destinations.
As a member of the first graduating class required to have an Immersion Experience, Christian Pinto ’13 wanted to go above and beyond what was required, so he created a self-designed experience. Christian went to Senegal, Africa, during the summer before his sophomore year, where he stayed with a local family while using his French skills and doing service work for a humanitarian organization. “At first, I was a bit unsure of going to a third-world African country without anyone I knew, but it forced me to really step outside of my comfort zone,” Christian says. “I met some great people who were incredibly interesting and like-minded, all wanting to experience the culture and people that the beautiful country of Senegal has to offer.”
Traveling halfway across the world before getting a driver’s license can be an unnerving experience, but to Christian it was freeing. “For the first time in my life I felt truly independent, and as a young adult, there really is no better feeling,” Christian says. “What was great about Senegal, too, was that I could also practice my French. It was a bit daunting, but the initial fear of conversing with locals goes away after the first few days.”
Five years later, Christian’s Immersion Experience at NA has helped mold his future. Since his trip to Senegal, he has lived in the Philippine jungle working at a local bank for two weeks, completed a trek along a portion of the Camino de Santiago, and, most recently, taken a one-month 3,500-kilometer trip through Vietnam on a rickety motorcycle. “That first adventurous trip sparked my love of ‘off the beaten path’ traveling and has really opened my eyes to truly making an effort to understand other cultures.”
Five years after her own Immersion Experience in Spain, Ruby Gould ’15 jumped at the opportunity to be an alumni leader on NA’s 2017 trip to Spain. “I was excited to watch students at the same age that I had been see the country for the first time and navigate the difficulty of communicating solely in a foreign language,” she says.
Ruby stayed with the same host family that she had gotten to know five years before, and she calls it a surreal experience to see how much she had grown and changed since her previous trip. “I was able to communicate with them on a whole new level,” Ruby says. “My favorite part of the experience was forming relationships with the students on the trip and watching them adjust to living with their host families.”
Ruby has continued to use her language skills, and this past summer she interned for the International Rescue Committee in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where she worked closely with newly arrived refugees and asylees. She was able to complete important casework for Latin-American refugees by using her Spanish. “My Immersion Experience in high school confirmed my interest in studying the Spanish language, and I am now a Spanish major at Bucknell University,” Ruby says. “After spending a semester studying abroad in Chile, my language skills improved drastically. I credit (Spanish teacher and Director of Immersion Experiences) Ms. McNeilly-Anta ’93 for my continued interest in the study of Spanish. She influenced me greatly during my years at Newark Academy.”
In the environs around Antigua, Guatemala, 42 families can now rely on the stability of a lovingly constructed cement-block house thanks to the dedication of more than 100 passionate Newark Academy Upper School students and a team of patient, skilled Guatemalan workers. Working with From Houses to Homes, a nonprofit founded in 2004 to build homes and improve the lives of the rural poor in Guatemala, NA students traveled to Antigua to build houses as part of a service-learning Immersion Experience for the past seven years.
How is it that hauling cement bags and blocks, shoveling sand and rocks, and filling cracks with mortar for six hours a day for two weeks can be so meaningful? The answer is easy: the people. NA students interact directly with the families who will live in the houses that their sweat, muscles and laughter produce. They work alongside Guatemalans who make it their business to show us a good time while we dig foundations, mix cement by hand, and measure and frame out walls, windows, doors and roofs. The open-hearted warmth of the Guatemalans we meet, from the children who hug at the drop of a hat to the workers who playfully mock us as they beat us in soccer on a dirt field, radiates into our hearts and makes a lasting impression.
Richness of Spirit and Community
NA students understand what service means and are eager to make an impact in a substantive way. Seth Wilensky ’16 went on the Guatemala Immersion Experience as a sophomore and returned as an alumni leader in 2017. Reflecting on the impact the trips have had on him, Seth says, “T
he only thing that struck me more than the natural beauty of Antigua was the richness of spirit and community that I experienced working in these communities alongside a dedicated crew of local Guatemalan workers. The joy, compassion and love that these locals extended to us, a group of foreigners, was unbelievable and still strikes me to this day. Returning to Antigua was an incredibly heartfelt experience for me, as I got to see the same workers I worked with as a student, who all still remembered me by name! The connections and memories I gained throughout my time in Antigua truly made me a better person and makes the NA community a better place.”
On June 3, 2018, the catastrophic eruption of Guatemala’s Fuego volcano affected countless people. A group of NA Upper School students and faculty members were in Antigua, 10 miles from Fuego, when this event occurred. Although the trip was cut short, two groups of NA students were so impacted by the short time they spent in Guatemala that they returned this past summer on a separate trip with From Houses to Homes. Their unusual commitment speaks to all of the joys, challenges, relationships and life-altering experiences that can emerge when we push ourselves and our students to venture off our planned paths and to engage in activities for which we are not expected to excel but rather to show up, roll up our sleeves, open our hearts, feel a little awkward, and offer a bit of what we have to someone who really needs it.
Jack Snyder ’19 traveled to Guatemala for his Immersion Experience in June 2017 and, like all students, kept a required journal of his time there. This excerpt from his Guatemala journal was written on the last day of the trip, June 25, 2017:
“My biggest takeaway was that stepping out of your comfort zone allows for physical and emotional growth. Meeting new people, such as the workers, the families, our homestay mom and friends we met along the way, forced us to interact with strangers in another language at practically every moment. This left me with experiences that I could have never imagined –experiences only available in Guatemala. I’ve never wanted to go back to any single place more in my life, and I haven’t even left yet. I’ll remember this experience forever, and hopefully I can return and continue to work with this amazing country. I can’t believe this is over. Wow.”