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High school students seek to broaden their horizons

Originally Posted on cgruber, July 14, 2014

The Future of Student Travel

Summer travel programs for teens have increased in popularity over the years, as high school students seek to broaden their horizons through exposure to different places and cultures. The mainstay of international travel has always been arts-and-culture tours of Europe, or, for some, learning to live communally in Israeli kibbutzim. In the 1990s, service-learning travel proliferated—in which students go to developing nations to volunteer their time and energy, especially after natural disasters.

Sustainable Summer, a non-profit student travel company founded in 2012 by Anne Fenton (SFGI07) and her husband, Jeff Sharpe, is not a service learning program. The goal of Sustainable Summer is not altruism, but education through hands-on fieldwork in sustainability and permaculture in developing countries. The curriculum includes readings, exercises, and personal energy audits related to the trip’s theme—which might be an investigation of Costa Rica’s biodiversity and sustainability initiatives, or an exploration of the global food system in Ecuador, among other possibilities.

Fenton got her start in the student travel industry when she joined Summerfuel (also known as Academic Study Associates) as a resident advisor for a teen trip to France, the summer before she began graduate school at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. She continued working with them during summers off from grad school; during the academic year she worked as a literacy tutor and mentor in the Santa Fe public schools. After completing the Graduate Institute, she moved to Brooklyn and worked for the Arts Initiative at Columbia University before accepting a position with Summerfuel as vice president in charge of European programs. After a few years traveling on behalf of Summerfuel, as well as traveling extensively on her own in Latin America, she and Sharpe began developing their vision for sustainable-development student travel.

They were taking a month-long farming and permaculture course in Ecuador, designed for adults, and discussing just how vital what they were learning was to the future of society. Sustainable development is based in the idea that we are all connected globally and what we do with our resources affects everyone. But this kind of learning tends to be absent from school curricula. “It’s amazing how many schools aren’t addressing this in any way, shape or form,” says Fenton. “It’s not being discussed. We realized it was a huge opportunity.”

They built the Sustainable Summer program on a preexisting ecotourism infrastructure and basic sustainability curriculum, primarily in Ecuador, where they’d developed contacts during their travels. Sharpe did his graduate research there; his master’s thesis was on the politics of international dam projects with primary focus on water management and general natural resource management. Fenton’s main passion is food politics.

“The learning outcomes vary a little bit, course to course,” says Fenton, “but we really want them to understand the global connections. What does a banana plant in Ecuador mean to us? Why does it have to exist? How much energy does it take to get the bananas from Ecuador to the United States? And what impact does that have on the local environment and the people?” Sustainable Summer students learn about sustainability through the lens of economics and culture as well as environmental science. “It has to work for the people who live there,” she says. “You can’t come in and impose cultural values on a community that doesn’t buy in.”

Many Sustainable Summer students come from New York City and a great many receive some form of financial aid to offset the tuition cost, thanks to partnerships Fenton and Sharpe have made with local non-profit organizations, including A Better Chance and The Opportunity Network, as well as through their own fundraising initiatives. While in Latin America, students participate in classroom instruction and field visits. They might learn how to compost, water, or harvest, or learn about plant species or seed-saving, which is the practice of saving seeds from the fruits and vegetables we eat to plant each year, instead of purchasing commercially sold seeds. Students learning about resource management do more observational work, including visiting wind turbines and hydroelectric and solar facilities. Students often hike to various locations, and they also participate in outdoor leisure activities including surfing, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting. This year, course descriptions on the website include “intensity ratings,” on a five-star scale, to give applicants an idea of what they can expect to experience emotionally, physically, and intellectually.

“We introduced those ratings this year based on our experiences the first year,” Fenton explains. “It wasn’t even the hikes or anything like that. We’re not as physically demanding as an Outward Bound program, for instance. The greater challenges seem to be emotional.”

Last summer, in the Seeds of Change course at a farm called Rio Muchacho, in Ecuador, run by a couple with a successful ecotourism operation, Fenton and Sharpe were surprised by how difficult roughing-it was for some of the teens. Rio Muchacho has very little electricity or hot water, and the solar-powered shower doesn’t get much sun in the summer. The toilets are composting toilets. All the food is locally harvested. In the mornings, the kids were required to help out with chores, which included shoveling pig manure.

“I did it,” says Fenton.”I didn’t love it, but when in Rome.”

Their assumption had been that the kids were young and healthy and could easily do the work, but combining rugged farm life far from home with a lack of internet and cell phones took a larger emotional toll on the students than anyone expected. For some of the kids, it was a huge hurdle.

“Now we go over all of this in detail during the application and interview process,” says Fenton. “Some kids think they’re fine with it, but they get there and they’re not. But, I think what draws people to these kinds of programs is that you experience so much growth when you’re put out of your comfort zone.”

In addition to managing the year-round business of Sustainable Summer, Fenton recently joined the staff of the Berkeley Carroll School, in Brooklyn, where she is in charge of developing and managing summer programs.

“I think if I could be anything in life,” she confesses, “I would want to be a St. John’s tutor. But I just don’t have the academic drive to get through a Ph.D. program. I’ve discovered that I am an extremely meticulous and detail-oriented manager of projects. It seemed like a natural fit when I found myself in more administrative management positions, instead of teaching. But I would love to get back into the classroom. At Berkeley Carroll, administrators often teach short-term intensive classes or get involved in ways that are more tied to the academic mission. I would love to do that—I would love to do a sustainability program here.”