Travel Changes Lives of Green Dot Seniors

The high school “senior trip” is something of an American tradition; an opportunity for twelfth graders to exert their independence and broaden their horizons before college. But for many Green Dot students, the expense often makes the adventure seem impossible. For the past three years, however, a large cohort of Ánimo Venice Charter High School seniors have traveled overseas, spending their spring break experiencing Europe’s best-known landmarks.

This year, 40 students and 7 adult chaperons spent ten days visiting three European capitals. In Paris, they visited the Musée du Louvre, home of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and climbed the elevators to the top of the Eiffel Tower to take in the views of the city. In London, the students explored the Dickensian streets of Camden Town and took an excursion to Stonehenge. In Edinburgh, they visited Stirling Castle, site of the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots.

One senior, Brandon Hernandez, says Scotland was his favorite stop. “The people were nice, and I was surprised that haggis actually tasted good,” he said. (The traditional Scottish dish, made of spiced heart and lung meat, is boiled in a sheep’s stomach.)

“Of all three cities, I definitely liked London the best,” says Amber Olmos, who, like Hernandez, graduated in May. “Everybody was so friendly, and I found a flea market that reminded me of L.A.’s — but better.” For Olmos, many elements of the trip were a first: her first airplane ride, her first time spent away from her family. “My parents were nervous because I never leave the house,” she says, “but it was my time to be independent.”

A Rare Chance, a Willing Sacrifice

Now in its third year, the senior class trip — which has brought more Stonehengethan 100 Ánimo Venice seniors to Europe — reflects two key principles for Green Dot: an unwavering belief in students’ potential, and the importance of personal responsibility. “The value it provides them can’t be measured,” says Stephanie Lowe, an art teacher at the school and the trip’s organizer. “I can see it in their conversations, in their future plans: for these students, the world becomes a bigger place.”

The benefits of the experience are not lost on parents. “I think I sold the idea to him,” laughs Teresa Contreras, whose son, Arnulfo, took part. “I wanted him to have the experience, and it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Plus, I knew it would be good for him when he went to college.”

Though the value of such exposure to foreign countries, cultures, languages, and etiquette are clear, the cost is significant. Education First, the tour company that organizes the trips, provides families with an interest-free payment plan, but students are tasked with personal fundraising. They consistently rise to the challenge.

“I had only six months to prepare, so I developed a pretty strong work ethic,” Olmos says. “My family held a yard sale, my aunt baked me some food to sell, my mom found some clothes we could sell, and I made a GoFundMe page — I didn’t realize how much support I had!”

New Experiences for Urban Kids

For many students, the trip was their first experience of life outside a major urban center. Lowe, the organizer, recounts the afternoon hike across Salisbury Plain in south England: “The tour guide kept pointing out ancient burial mounds, but the kids were more excited about the cows and sheep,”

Amber Olmos remembers her last day in the Scottish Highlands: “We went to Loch Lubnaig and it was like something out of a book,” she recalls. “The scenery was so green and the water was so clear. No cars were passing by. You could hear the waves and the wind. It was so peaceful.”

Students weren’t always fish out of water. In fact, growing up in Los Angeles meant that Lowe could take them off the beaten tourist path. “Our kids are city kids,” Lowe explains. “We can take them to places actual city people go. They can handle it.” As a result, students were able to visit graffiti art murals in the heart of England’s Bangladeshi community in the East End of London.

The Next Generation of Educational Travelers

In previous years, student groups have visited Rome, Florence, Provence, and Barcelona. Next year, they will head to Spain and Portugal; 25 students have already signed up. “My goal is to get them to become world travelers,” Lowe says. “The value of the trip may not be immediately obvious, but it reflects a lifetime change.”

“I’ve lived in the same place all my life,” says Amber Olmos. “Learning all these new things and bringing all these pictures and maps and souvenirs back to my family — I want to be a role model to them. My siblings are only in elementary school now, but they already want to go on the trip, too.”

For Stephanie Lowe, organizing and chaperoning the Ánimo Venice senior class trip has been one of the highlights of her career, and she’s eager to share what she’s learned with other teachers. “Kids will remember this the rest of their lives,” she says. “Families, too. When we come back into the International Terminal at LAX, they’re there in the waiting area with balloons and signs. People are crying.”

 

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