One Week Abroad, a Lifetime of Impact
Samantha Lurie (St. Louis ’08) launched the Show Me Costa Rica program to give her ninth graders an opportunity to see the world. Now in its sixth year, the program is spreading to other nearby St. Louis schools.
After a group of St. Louis high school students visited a suburban school in a more affluent area of the city in 2012, they returned with a lot of questions about the lack of opportunities at their own school.
The students, from Vashon High School, were participating in a “school swap” through Cultural Leadership, a local nonprofit program that teaches leadership and exposes students to social issues like education inequity.
During their “swap” with Clayton High School, the students noticed a flyer advertising a travel abroad program for high school students. Many of her students were blown away by the idea that someone in high school could travel to another country.
From the conversations that ensued with their teacher, Samantha Lurie (St. Louis ’08), Show Me Costa Rica was born.
As an avid traveler, Samantha knew the value of having exposure to new cultures and places and agreed that this was an opportunity her students should have. “There are so many benefits to traveling—it develops curiosity, helps shape your decision-making and the way that you see yourself and the world,” she says.
Within six months, Samantha and her students raised $25,000, and the first cohort of 10 Vashon students traveled to Costa Rica.
Gaining New Perspective
During the week-long trip to Costa Rica, students step out of their comfort zone by leaving their familiar surroundings. For many students, this is the first time being far from home. The first time they’ve ever flown on an airplane. The first time their toes have touched an ocean. The experience is life-changing.
In addition to learning about the local culture, students also focus on studying the biology of the abundant wildlife and forests. “Students are literally living and breathing science and developing a deeper connection to the world,” Samantha says.
More Than Just a Trip
Developing students’ entrepreneurial and leadership skills is an important part of the journey. Students work over the course of a year to set long-term goals and raise money for the trip from friends and family through donations and coffee sales. Students work on their pitches and public speaking skills. Some get part-time jobs to help cover the expenses. Teachers commit to raising $1,600 per student to help offset the cost.
In addition to learning entrepreneurial and fundraising skills, students participate in a series of workshops throughout the year, which includes learning about Latin American dances and Costa Rican culture, in addition to swimming lessons and biology sessions through a partnership with Washington University’s Young Scientist Program.
The work that students do to prepare for the trip ends up being a huge confidence builder. Students develop mindsets about what’s possible and what they can achieve. Samantha has seen how these entrepreneurial experiences leverage her students’ strengths.
“Persistence and resilience are characteristics that our students already have,” she says. “Students become affirmed throughout this project because they can see how to apply these characteristics to achieve something they never thought was possible.”
One of her former participants, Dominic Archie Jr., is helping the next cohort of students navigate the planning and logistics for the trip. Since attending the trip last summer, he received a scholarship from the International Exchange Org (AFS) to study abroad again this summer.
A Life-Changing Experience
To date, 55 students have gone through the program. Samantha has carefully tracked her students’ progress following their trip and is continually impressed by the impact that traveling abroad has on her students. Students overwhelmingly agree that they gained a better insight into themselves, a greater sense of independence, and a greater understanding of different cultures.
She’s also seen strong academic growth among participants, with many students improving and maintaining a strong GPA throughout the rest of their time in high school. As former participants are applying to college, many are seeking out schools that offer study abroad programs.
Samantha has also collaborated with St. Louis University to survey the former participants of the project. Many students are majoring in science and setting big goals for themselves.
Sep’Tisha Riley will be the first participant from the program to graduate from college, in June 2018. She received a full-ride scholarship to attend Kalamazoo College, a school she was drawn to because it requires spending a semester abroad. She returned to Costa Rica to become fluent in Spanish and learn more about the education system. She will be joining Teach For America in the fall as a South Carolina corps member.
“By participating in the Show Me Costa Rica project, I see an opportunity to break the cycle in my family, giving me the chance to travel internationally, experience a different culture, study foreign ways of life, and strengthen my educational background,” Sep’Tisha says.
Making Travel Accessible
While working at Teach For America’s summer institute, Samantha met two 2012 St. Louis corps members, Natasha Dupee and Kaitlin Dauner, who taught at neighboring St. Louis public schools. The three teachers collaborated to bring their students, from north county and north city, together during the third and fourth year of the trip.
Further collaborations with other TFA teachers have led to expanding the program to three more schools across St. Louis—Carnahan, Central Visual and Performing Arts, and Gateway STEM. This May, six alumni and one corps member will help lead the trip for 27 students from these schools.
Samantha is delighted to have so many leaders within her network to help expand this opportunity to more students. “This collaboration gave us the confidence—this is actually a replicable program for students in under-resourced communities,” she says.