Pingry Summer Travelers—Destination: Costa Rica and Central Europe
Posted 09/01/2016 08:40AM

As part of Pingry's Global Education offerings, 20 students traveled to different parts of the world this summer, building a playground, eating schnitzel, touring the world's only carbon-neutral coffee company, and studying graffiti as political expression, among many other packed-itinerary adventures. Here's a recap.

Costa Rica

From June 20-29, 13 Middle School students, led by Middle School Dean of Students Barrington Fulton and Upper School English teacher Eleanor Lear, traveled to the Talamanca Mountain region of south-central Costa Rica on a collaborative leadership program hosted by the World Leadership School. Part service-learning, part cultural immersion, the trip engaged students in the richness of Costa Rican life on a number of levels, not the least of which was culinary! (Fresh pineapple, watermelon, and sugar cane juice was offered daily, and they feasted on homemade empanadas, picadillo, beans, rice, and tortillas.)

The group's primary destination was the small town of Santa Maria de Dota, where they stayed in local cabinas for four days and helped with a community project: constructing a new playground for the town's elementary school. Before they left for their trip, the Middle Schoolers raised over $1,600 to help provide materials for the new play space.

"We were hoping that the students would find partnerships through and benefit from the construction project; not just go on the trip to give," said Mr. Fulton. "And that certainly happened."

Students were paired with homestay families, many of whom didn't speak English, and ate lunch with them daily. When they weren't laying cement for the new playground, they were learning Spanish and soccer tricks from the schoolchildren, getting a firsthand glimpse of rural Costa Rican school life.

They also got a firsthand look at the staggering biodiversity of Costa Rica, and the eco-friendly practices the country works so hard to maintain (sometimes the town goes a month or more using 100% clean energy, they learned). A tour of the Coopedota coffee factory (a cooperative), which repurposes its coffee bean husks into fuel to power the roasting machines, taught the students about carbon footprints. They also toured a banana plantation and planted fruit tree saplings in a nearby rainforest—another strategy to offset carbon emissions.

"My biggest takeaway from this trip was witnessing the way in which, as their town thrived on the normally so environmentally destructive coffee industry, the people of Santa Maria de Dota managed to stay true to and preserve the rich biodiversity and natural splendor of the mountains around them," remarked Natalie DeVito '22. "I was impressed with the effort Coopedota had gone to in order to make their factory completely carbon neutral and sustainable for the environment. I was also excited by the windmills dotted around the countryside, showing the effort Costa Rica was making to switch their country to sustainable energy."

Following Santa Maria de Dota, Dominical, on the Pacific coast, was the group's next destination, where adventure-based activities awaited them: zip-lining, hiking, tubing, and surfing.

Nightly journaling helped the students process what they had seen and learned that day. And every evening, a different pair of students led a debriefing session.

"Going into this trip, I was anticipating an amazing community service and team building experience," concluded Natalie. "Not only were these expectations fulfilled, but the way I looked at myself, the world around me, and the people in it, changed dramatically over the course of 10 days."

Beyond the Wall

Three years ago, Upper School history teacher Dr. Megan Jones applied for a Pingry summer fellowship to visit some of the countries she was teaching about in her AP European History class—Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. In the summer of 2014, after two weeks of touring, she was struck by the way in which the shared Communist history of these countries was told differently through their monuments, museums, and memorials. A seed was immediately planted for a future student trip.

"Communism is such a dominant force in 20th-century world history, but high school kids today, born just after the Berlin Wall fell, have a hard time understanding it," she said. "I thought this would be a really interesting, experiential trip for them to widen the classroom lens and really see how people reacted to Communism, and how they talk about it now."

And so, "Beyond the Wall" was born, a 12-day (August 3–14), seven-student voyage through Berlin, Prague, and Budapest. (Berlin was added in place of Poland because, Dr. Jones argued, the Berlin Wall so perfectly symbolizes the divide between Eastern and Western Europe; it also provides a look at the history of fascism.) Atlas Workshops helped to customize the trip and manage logistics.

Led by Dr. Jones and fellow history teacher Ms. Julia Dunbar, this was no tourist excursion. Students were asked to pay close attention, and compare how each city commemorates its Communist past. "We really wanted to be travelers, not tourists," said Dr. Jones. "We weren't just going to see the places, but to investigate historical questions."

In each city a tour guide led the group, prompting discussion about the various manifestations of political activism, and sharing their own, personal feelings of Communism. For example, in Berlin, they visited a section of the Wall known as the East Side Gallery, where artwork—in the form of detailed paintings and graffiti—has been a common vehicle for political expression. Their tour guide in Prague told of how his father saved up money for five years to buy a pair of jeans, a very powerful anecdote for the kids. While viewing a WWII memorial built in in 2014, their guide in Budapest, a political science professor, told them of the protests surrounding its erection, as many felt it didn't acknowledge Hungary's complicity in fascism.

"I think the students came to understand that history is contested. It's not just a single narrative in a textbook, as it can often feel like in a classroom setting," said Dr. Jones.

Recognizing that they were traveling to Europe a few months after Budapest's train station was flooded with Syrian migrants, and a few weeks after Turkey's uprising, current political unrest was not lost on the students either.

"Many Pingry trips are either community service- or language-focused, so being able to go on one that focused more on the history and politics of a country was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said traveler Myla Stovall '18.

Like their Middle School counterparts in Costa Rica, the students wrote daily reflections in journals and through blog posts. Time was also set aside in parks or cafés to write and discuss what they had seen. Each day a new "leader" was designated, as well as a blogger/photographer. And at night, the group gathered to discuss and answer the following two questions: "What was successful today?" and "What made you go, 'Huh?'"

For Pingry's Global Program travelers, "Huh?" is always a welcome response.

For more details and photos of the Costa Rica trip, visit the group's blog here.
For more details and photos of the Central Europe trip, visit the group's blog here.
Click here for additional information on Pingry Global Programs.

Photos, top to bottom: Pingry Middle School students working to construct the school playground in Santa Maria de Dota; discovering a waterfall on a hike; Natalie DeVito '22 (flanked by Marcus Brotman '21 on the left and Luc Francis '21 on the right) posing with a member of her homestay family; Pingry Upper Schoolers in Budapest, with Buda Castle in the background, left; students observe the East Side Gallery in Berlin.

Contact: Andrea Dawson, Senior Writer,