The Williams Unified School District Board of Trustees thought enough parents, teachers, and community members might be interested in learning about a program to send students to Rwanda that they moved their March meeting into the auditorium for more spacious accommodations.
Few people, however, showed up to hear the presentation from retired teacher Cynthia Hess, who oversees the African Education Support Foundation Overseas Learning Adventure (AES), a non-profit organization registered out of Salinas.
Hess has taken dozens of students and others on 10-to-30-day trips that combine sightseeing with volunteer work – typically referred to as philanthropic vacations.
Hess’s organization has taken four groups to Rwanda to refurbish school blackboards, and several other groups to build school libraries. The organization also sponsored a teacher for an entire year and sponsored a college student’s three-month internship in hotel management.
Hess is hoping now to expand her efforts (phase two) for students to study abroad by teaming up with Williams Unified School District on a program that will allow 30 to 48 high school juniors and seniors to spend an entire 14-week semester studying and volunteering at the same time.
Hess said a semester in Africa would be an experience for Williams Unified and other students to study the root cause of civil war in Rwanda, examine the 1994 genocide, and learn from the country’s efforts to foster peace, unity, and reconciliation.
The cost is about $12,300 per student, which Williams Unified (average daily attendance funding) will pay in the amount of $78,000 to $98,000, depending on the number of students.
AES’s private donors will supply the rest of the funding.
“That money is being supplied by private individuals or corporations who believe in the integrity of student travel,” Hess said.
Phase three of the project would include bringing stakeholders together to provide and receive feedback.
Trustee Sylvia Vaca and Superintendent Edgar Lampkin plan to travel to Rwanda in order to ensure the program is viable and make sure Williams Unified can guarantee the safety of the students.
Hess said phase four is a collaboration on stakeholder responsibilities.
“For example, school officials will oversee the program and monitor the program’s progress,” Hess said. “The parents responsibility will be to get their child to the airport and make sure they have a passport, and also to make sure they have all their shots or make any medical decisions they want to about available vaccines and inoculations. The teachers’ responsibility will be to teach to 21st century skills. Chaperone responsibility (7-1 student-adult ratio) will be safety.”
Hess said the students will tour and get adjusted to the country the first week, visit the genocide memorial, museums, and art centers, visit the reconciliation village, and go on safari.
In addition to their regular studies, students will study social and restorative justice and teach American idioms to Rwandan students.
“It’s an unbelievable experience,” Hess said. “In fact, it is a life transforming experience.”
Williams High School alumna Dixie LaGrande has spent her adult life combining history and education with travel.
As one of only a few Williams residents to attend the presentation, LaGrande said she believes the study abroad program would be a wonderful experience for young people, but said the expense that would ultimately benefit very few local students would be at the cost of other students, particularly those at the elementary school.
She also questions whether students could raise charitable or corporate donations within the local community if called upon to do so.
LaGrande disagreed with Lampkin, who said organizations like the Rotary and Lions clubs who once provided student opportunities, including study abroad programs, have abandoned Williams. “The Rotary Club and Lions Club didn’t abandoned Williams,” she said. “People abandoned the Rotary Club and Lions Club.”
LaGrande, a trustee with the Sacramento Valley Museum – an organization that struggles to get Williams residents involved – said that while she supports study abroad programs, she believes students should first learn about culture, volunteerism, social justice, and reconciliation in the communities where they live.
“We have so many of these issues right here,” she said.
Lampkin disagreed and said that Williams students need to experience life “outside a box” to fully understand that there are more opportunities awaiting them than working in the agriculture industry.
Lampkin, the son of migrant workers, said it was a study abroad program sponsored by the Colusa Rotary Club that propelled him toward higher education and inspired him to become an educator.
“It was transformative to me,” Lampkin said. “It was like my lenses cleared. I was no longer the same person. When we have rich experiences, our senses turn on. Our students deserve to be transformed.”
While Lampkin said that he expects only five to eight of the 35 students going to Africa to be from Williams High School, he said he did not believe the program would be at the cost of other students.
Lampkin said Williams Unified, as a whole, is working to provide the best facilities, the best curriculum, and the best school experience to prepare all students with the education they need to live and work in the 21st century.
“The study-abroad program is just one small part of it,” he said.
For more information about African Education Support Foundation Overseas Learning Adventure visit aesf.education. ■