This is a guest post by Learning Service intern Julia Green, on her experiences of experiential education.

Sitting on our homestay’s rooftop, gazing up at the towering snow-covered peaks, as the sun set over the Himalayas. It seems as though nothing could make this moment better. Alast, our homestay mother, brings us a warm cup of chai and an even warmer smile. With our tea in hand and an awe-glazed look over our faces we discussed how we got here, and more importantly why we were here. We were in India because we had spent the last two years pitching, planning and fundraising for service and experiential education trips to start at our school, which led us into creating our school’s first student-created service trip to Bala, India in 2018. We had drafted and pitched multiple itineraries with the intention to run it ourselves and not partner with an outside organization. But ultimately due to parental concern, safety measures, and the fact that this was the first international trip at our school, we partnered with one of the leading experiential education organizations in the United States. We did a lot of research comparing programs, but went with this company because they were very well known and very large, so we assumed they knew what they were doing.

For sure, there were some aspects of the model that they had got right. Our local coordinator, Sunita, was phenomenal. She was extremely passionate about planning transformational experiences for students to teach us about the culture of her country that she was so proud of. To this day I am still in close contact with Sunita and hope to visit her again later this year. However as our time in India unfolded we became increasing uncomfortable with some aspects of how the trip was run.

For example, during our time in India we participated in a local service project where we assisted local community members in building toilet facilities. This project was an effort to help with sanitation issues and women safety within the community. We learned that when women don’t have toilet facilities they need to use the bathroom out in the fields and are at higher risk of getting abused. The facilities were to give them a sense of security and safety.

What we felt uncomfortable with was not the project itself but how much we were taught about it beforehand and how little we actually knew about the community before arrival. There was a major lack of transparency from the company before we left for our trip, which in turn made us feel unprepared and ignorant when we arrived. We wanted to contribute in the best way we could, but soon after we got there we saw how maybe our help wasn’t needed at all. The locals were more than capable of running the projects, all they needed were the tools and funds to make it happen. They hadn’t necessarily asked for 14 highschool students.

However in general my time in India was a positive experience and inspired me to learn more about these sustainability and ethics issues in travel. I never imagined that the problems we experienced on that trip were symptomatic of wider issues in the company and in the sector.

The organization offered every student who went on the India trip a 50 percent discount on a summer experience with them. Even though I had seen a few flaws with this company I decided to give them another chance. Instead of choosing a service-intensive trip (because I was questioning their ethics around how they ran those experiences) I chose a trip that I was sure I would connect with deeply. The trip was called “Backpacking Through Peru,” where our instructors would not be leading us through a pre-established itinerary but would guide us on creating our own experience, in the hope of teaching us how to be solo backpackers one day. This model and idea excited me because it gave me the freedom I desired while traveling, the safety and security of being with an organization and a group of incredible people. For three weeks, myself and eight strangers from around the world backpacked and hostel hopped through Peru on a tight budget that we were in charge of. Each week we were split up into three teams which were in charge of a different aspect of our travels: transportation, accommodation and food.

This experience gave me the confidence and curiosity to continue to travel and some long-lasting like-minded friendships. As my friends and I reflected on this trip we recapped all of the amazing experiences we had, backpacking through high alpine passes, singing through the streets of Cusco, and moments of deep reflection and meaningful conversation. But as we continued to reflect we started to notice more issues with our experience than we had seen at first glance. 

For example, we started to realize that there was a deep lack of transparency in the organization. We had an extremely small budget every day for food and accommodation but the cost of the trip was too large to match what we were told to spend. We wondered where the rest of our money was going. Of course they needed to pay our instructors, and some of the money had to go to the company itself, but based on the amount that we were spending on the trip the amount of money going to the organization was an extremely large proportion of the fees we paid. It wasn’t even the fact that most of our money was going to the organization; it was that the company wasn’t transparent about where and how our money was spent. Especially when the whole point of the trip was to be aware and in control of our finances.

We also started to discuss how we were traveling too fast, and that hopping from location to location wasn’t a sustainable way to travel. We weren’t being taught any sustainability practices, or taught the importance of connecting with locals or how to be a more responsible traveler. In fact, as we were traveling with a group of peers from the same country we were an insulated bubble, carrying our culture with us. This wasn’t my definition of what experiential education should be.

Another issue we discussed was how the organization was marketed to potential students. When you look on this organization’s Instagram they only show photos of thin, white, usually American, students, who appear to be from high-income families. From the organization’s perspective, maybe they feel this is who they have to market to because they have to pay the bills. But when you look at this through the lens of  equity and appealing to a diverse group of students, it didn’t sit well with us. We felt that their marketing was corrupt. They were targeting the rich parents of North America who wanted to send away their children to be changed and to feel that they are doing good in the world – even if they don’t have the first clue what they’re doing.

For example, when we got to the airport in Lima, Peru, there was one kid who said he was on our trip and who struck up conversations with all of us, asking where we were from etc. But then he realized that in fact he wasn’t on our trip and he actually didn’t know what group he was part of. His parents never even told him what trip he was on, he never thought to ask and the trip leaders hadn’t even explained it to him. 

I always say that I had an amazing experience on this trip, but part of what made it so incredible was the opportunity to challenge the way that most people travel. In fact I learned a lot about how NOT to travel, and to see the problems within these big travel companies.

I have always been interested in experiential education, and I know that when it is done right it can deeply challenge your beliefs about the world and your place within it. Arguably it is the most ancient form of education. Our ancestors didn’t have textbooks and computers to reference, they had their local environment and community dynamic to learn from. In the 21st century companies and organizations have begun to capitalize on this prehistoric form of education. People passionate about the transformative nature of travel have crafted programs for students to explore and learn from the world around them in hope that the students’ global perspective and personal narrative will be challenged and ultimately altered for the better. 

This is the main reason that my shaky experiences didn’t cause me to give up on experiential education, but cemented my resolve to do it better. From these initial experiences of travel I realised that sustainability and responsible practices need to be at the heart of any travel program, especially those aiming to teach young people how to backpack or travel on their own. I believe that travel needs to change, and the pandemic has given us the perfect opportunity to make these changes as individuals and within the travel sector as a whole. I believe as travelers we need to prioritise slow travel experiences and to travel with more intention and purpose. When we travel slow, we don’t only connect with the people and place we are traveling to on a deeper level but we are able to lessen our carbon footprint in major ways. Slow travel also allows for a cheaper mode of travel when you take advantage of experiences like work exchange and hostels.

When it comes to experiential education and taking students on international programs I believe that we need to be focusing on creating enriching pre-departure programs. Students need to learn about the places they will be traveling in and the projects they will be contributing to before they even step on the plane. I also believe that on student experiential education trips there should be more deep discussions about issues and topics within the country they are visiting, and also on ethical and sustainable issues in travel. Whether you’re traveling in a group or you are a solo traveler I believe that having a purpose and intention while traveling is the most important aspect of a meaningful, ethical and transforming experience.

Julia Green is a 19 year old based in California. She is passionate about the future of sustainable/ethical travel and experiential education. She runs a podcast and community called Generation Nomad, made to empower the next generation of globally minded nomads to travel differently and with purpose! Julia is currently on a Gap Year and is an intern for Learning Service. In her future she hopes to work in experiential education and wilderness psychotherapy in hope to help others use travel as a tool for education and self growth.