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Low-income kids soar on summer trips abroad

Cathalyn Washington, 16, hugs her mother, Yolanda Washington, on June 20, 2015, before boarding a bus with other Chicago students to O'Hare International Airport for their flight to China for two-week cross-cultural academic visit, offered through the Chicago Urban League.
(Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Tribune

Growing up in Englewood, 18-year-old Lawon Pace spent his free time playing video games inside his family’s three-bedroom apartment because he knew it wasn’t safe on the street. When he did go outside, he said, “I always walked with somebody,” and he rarely strayed more than a block or two from home.

But Pace recently took his first big step beyond that invisible boundary. Along with 20 other students from the South Side, he boarded a plane at O’Hare International Airport on June 20 to begin a two-week cross-cultural academic trip to China, offered through the Chicago Urban League.

The idea of traveling so far, he said, was “a little mind-blowing.”

“There’s not a lot of people from Englewood who get to travel outside the country,” said Pace, who had never been on a plane before. “A lot of my friends, the majority don’t even get to go out of town.”

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Across the country, schools, nonprofits and scholarship programs are increasingly offering low-income students a chance to travel internationally as part of a broader attempt to narrow opportunity and achievement gaps in a more globalized economy.

The Chicago Urban League launched its travel program in 2013.

This month and next, 70 students from Illinois will depart on four-week language, service and leadership trips funded by Global Navigator scholarships, a five-year, $17.5 million effort kicked off last year by the Portland, Maine-based Council on International Educational Exchange.

And in September, a California-based nonprofit, Global Glimpse, will partner with 10 Chicago-area schools to provide after-school programming that will culminate in three-week trips next summer to Ecuador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

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“A lot of our students have never left their communities,” said Eliza Pesuit, executive director of Global Glimpse. “For them to get a passport and step on a plane and do something that no one in their family or in their community has ever done, it sets a precedent for their future.”

While the number of students in study abroad programs has more than doubled in the past 15 years, the number of African-American and Hispanic students in such programs has remained persistently low, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education. The biggest reason: affordability.

Against that backdrop, some travel programs are targeting high-achieving students who excel in languages. Other programs aim to reach teens who, regardless of their foreign language skills, might simply benefit from the confidence and cultural sophistication that comes from seeing another part of the world.

When Minnie Neal heard that her granddaughter had landed a spot in a prestigious program that is sending students to China for six weeks this summer, Neal was heartbroken. “I told her, ‘I don’t have the money,’” recalled Neal, 75, a retired housekeeper who is raising her two grandchildren. “I felt real bad that she wouldn’t be able to go.”

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But her granddaughter, Jasmine Purnell, 16, quickly explained that the program, Americans Promoting Study Abroad, covers the cost of airfare and lodging. Her voice cracking with emotion, Jasmine told her grandmother: “It’s going to be free.”

Now Jasmine, who has been studying Mandarin for three years at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood, is packing her bags and preparing to leave for Beijing next month. “I am real proud of her,” said Neal, who has never flown on an airplane.

Organizations that fund the travel say they want to encourage students not only to study languages but also to set ambitious goals.

Deja Jackson, 17, a senior at Thornton Fractional North High School in Calumet City, never thought she would have the chance to travel abroad — at least during her teen years. “My family doesn’t have that kind of money,” she said.

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When she learned through an email in April that she had been accepted into the Urban League program, she and her mother wept with joy. Her mother, Stacy Jones-Haynes, 46, an office administrator, hopes the experience will give Deja an edge when applying for college scholarships.

“It’s amazing to me what they are doing for these kids,” she said.

For their part, school and program administrators say they’re simply giving young people the skills they need to succeed in a modern world. Chicago’s Urban Prep Academies will send nine students overseas this summer, up from one student who went abroad in 2009.

“It is beautiful to see how travel helps our students mature and develop,” said Kenneth Hutchinson, Urban Prep’s director of college counseling. “I had one student who studied in the Dominican Republic. He was from a poor community in Chicago and it was interesting to see him wrestle with what Third World poverty looks like.”

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“The travel changes these students. They come back and bring that energy and excitement and share it with their peers,” he said. “And the trips send a message to all our students that, if you work hard, you can earn opportunities — which is a key lesson we want our kids to learn.”

Even before they step on the plane, many students are thinking about how their experience might inspire others. Precious Harrell, 17, a senior at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, said she is excited to soak up the culture during the Urban League trip to China.

But the thing she is most looking forward to is coming home and telling her young cousins about what is beyond the horizon.

“I want to give them the mindset of wanting to go out of the country and wanting to explore the world,” she said. “Because the world is beautiful.”

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cmastony@tribune.com

twitter @cmastony


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