We continue our blog series documenting the reflections of the inaugural cohort of the Connecting Our World Grassroots Leadership Program (GLP) today with a post from Hawaii. Laura Davis describes the challenges of opening the minds of K-12 students to global experiences and recommends her cost-effective photo sharing project to fellow international educators.

Laura Davis As a teacher at a small, K-12 private school on Oahu, I expect to hear about other countries daily. Geographically situated between Asia and the United States, Hawaii has received waves of immigrants since the early 1900’s and according to the most recent census, 17.7% of the state’s population is foreign born. Of Hawaiian residents, 25% speak a language other than English at home. With so many family ties abroad, students residing here have much to discuss about different cultures, countries, and customs.

Yet, students often remain silent about their international backgrounds. The majority of high school students have never traveled to neighboring islands, much less to other countries, and those who have don’t talk about it. Despite the incredibly rich diversity in every classroom, the lack of an effective way to communicate those perspectives can result in stereotyping. In fact, Hawaii has a reputation for fostering a provincial mindset.

How do you switch a group’s mind-set from isolationist to international? After the advocacy workshop in Washington, D.C. with NAFSA’s first Grassroots Leadership Program cohort, I came away with the idea of a photo competition. Students returning from summer adventures would be encouraged to submit photographs of their travels and the winners would have their work printed and displayed in the school hallways. From there, I hoped these photographs would serve as a starting point for conversations about travel and inspire more students to look abroad.

A co-teacher from the art department and I were deep into the logistics of finding judges and deciding on voting criteria when a third colleague stopped us short. If the activity aimed to provide a platform for those who were previously too shy to discuss their summer travels abroad, would these students be so bold as to risk failure by entering a competition? We discussed the idea of creating multiple awards for “best color” or “best location” but again, the concepts of winning and losing seemed counter to our objective of sharing.

We decided to scrap the photo competition in place of a summer photo-share. All students from grades 9-12 were invited to send us their pictures from their summer adventures, both on the island of Oahu and abroad. Mr. Pascual in the art department then compiled them in iMovie and we had a DVD of rotating images play on the flat screen in the upper school hallway for two weeks.

I deemed the project a success after observing the response of students to the images. Trundling along, laden with textbooks, students would happen to look up, slow their walk to stop, and ask their neighbor about what they saw. “Where is that?” “What language is on that sign?” During one study hall, three students simply sat on the bare hallway floor under the monitor discussing each image, the classmate pictured there, and the locations they dreamed of visiting at the first opportunity.

While this project seems small in scope, I would recommend it to other international educators for several reasons. First, it encourages students already open to other cultures to keep traveling. Several students approached me to tell me that while they didn’t submit photos this year, now that they know about the photo-share they will take pictures during the coming summer to plan for submission in the fall. The students who did have pictures in the slide show took quiet pride in their public presence—for a demographic that communicates via Facebook, picture sharing is a  familiar, “low-stakes” method for sharing information.

Second, it does not require special expertise or funding. With no budget, any motivated international educator can still encourage international mindedness in this way. Collaboration with tech-savvy departments is a huge help, but it could be managed by one person alone.

Third, this project reminds us never to underestimate the power of seeing a friend do something you consider impossible. After the photo-share, many students approached me about applying for summer travel opportunities. Why? Because they saw their friends standing on the Great Wall and now it seems possible.

As I prepare the announcement of the second annual summer photo share, I am reminded of how important it is for us all to share our experiences. I check my e-mail and find a request: Can alumni submit to the photo share? Yes. Can faculty? Definitely. Because honestly, what is the power of our individual sojourns to distant lands if they don’t make our home community stronger?

In conclusion, this project, in addition to my year-long participation in the NAFSA Grassroots Leadership Program team, reminded me that international education is everyone’s responsibility. From study abroad officers to English teachers hoping to expand their student’s horizons; students who have traveled and have a story to share: we all can play a role in making our world a little less fearful of others. All these baby steps eventually add up to a great leap towards open mindedness and we’ll build our wings on the way down.

Laura Davis is a NAFSA member and participant in the inaugural cohort of the Connecting Our World Grassroots Leadership Program. She teaches English and serves as the community service coordinator at Island Pacific Academy, an International Baccalaureate school based upon the core values of respect for others, generosity of spirit, and the power of human kindness.