Personal Development Week: Transformational Learning

by Victoria Wasner, Experiential Learning Coordinator

Returning to school after the whirlwind of Personal Development Week (PDW) experiences has been quite a challenge for many of us, both on an emotional and physical level. Through talking to colleagues and students and reading written reflections, one thing that has stood out for me has been that our experiences have been powerful; there have been moments that have transformed how we think, how we behave, and how we see the world. We have been moved by emotions, we have struggled with moments of cognitive dissonance through facing unknown and unfamiliar situations, and ultimately we have been inspired to continue to take further action. In this first of a series of articles on experiential learning in our High School, we would like to share some of our own stories with you and to reflect on how service learning can certainly be transformational.

Our first story reflects on a Grade 11 week in the Himalayas; an experience that became a PDW for the first time this year, after initially starting as an independent student-led trip: 

Himalayas: Sustainable Community Impact

By John Dalesio and Victoria Allen, Trip Leaders

Sustainability and development were the main themes of our trip to the Himalayas, as we sought to empower rural Ladakh communities to develop. The Himalayan Impact Expedition featured 10 days of bonding with the team on a trek in the Ladakh Valley to the remote village of Ldumbur, which at the start of the trip was still living in darkness. By bringing light to Ldumbur through solar energy and hot water to the village of Photolalok through the installation of solar water heaters, students achieved the sustainability and leadership goals set before the trip. In addition, we soaked in the warm hospitality of the villagers.

One of our students in Grade 11, Olivia, talks about her experience below and what it meant to her:

"Going to the Himalayas and electrifying the village of Ldumbur was undoubtedly life-changing. This experience will stay with us forever, a constant reminder of the vastness of the world around us and the good we can accomplish. Being with the villagers, sharing in their community and the culture, feeling the love and respect that surrounds them brought every person who went on that trip joy. The harsh conditions, physical labor and emotional strain placed upon us has made us grow as people. We now know ourselves and each other better than we did before. We were all born with a privilege and seeing how other people in the world live with not even half of what we have can make you feel ashamed. Don’t. One lesson I think everyone on this trip learned was: Don’t be ashamed of your privilege. Yes, you have things others don’t,but don’t let that make you feel embarrassed.  Go back to the basic lesson all children learn; how to share. Share your privilege and share in the joy, the happiness, the love of the people around you. If you can use the gifts you were given to better the lives of others, then you have nothing to be ashamed of."

Olivia’s thoughts remind me of a quote by bell hooks; ‘Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege’.¹

Our second story below describes how students were moved to take action based on what they experienced during their time in Nepal, working with our whole-school charity Nawa Asha Griha (NAG):

Nepal: Empathy and Initiative

By Jessica Levy and Samantha Amer, Trip Leaders

While our students were in Kathmandu working at NAG, they took note of a homeless woman who was living with her children on the street near our hotel. One evening during reflection time the students decided they wanted to help her, yet they were unsure how to do so in a sustainable and thoughtful way. Through much reflecting and many discussions with staff at NAG, the following initiative was started. The following is a post from Nicole, the founder and director of NAG:

"The students from ISZL spent a week at NAG. During this time they put some money together (13840.- rupees) and wanted to do some good with it. The problem was time, so the NAG/NiMS students decided to partner up with them and make sure the money was used for a good cause. Soon the temperature in Nepal will drop and winter is coming. In most places there is no indoor heating. So the students decided to buy warm clothes for an old age home. This place is for the old people who had been living on the streets. I would like to say THANK YOU to the generous ISZL students. It was great seeing the students getting together and doing good. Seeing the next generation with such big hearts gives me a lot of hope."

Watching our students come together so quickly out of an urge to make a difference was awe-inspiring. They were able to see a need in Kathmandu, felt the pull to do something, and spend many hours working as a team to come up with an idea for a meaningful and sustainable initiative. This new student-led service project between our students and NAG students represents just how impactful our long-term commitment to NAG has become. Here we have Nepali street children, given the opportunity to study at NAG, who now are able to participate in their own service-learning initiatives and give back to their communities. For me, watching this project take shape answers the question "why do we do service?" I have been left feeling proud, both of our students, who had the idea and motivation, and the ISZL community as a whole for their continued support. 

The experiences felt by many of the students who visited NAG were summarised by Cillian, a Grade 11 student leader:

"Upon entering Nawa Asha Griha, we were all changed, the pure joy and happiness on the faces of the many children was so inspiring to see. The way a child would grab your hand and put so much trust in you amazed us. I learned a lot during my short time a NAG. I began to find my voice in teaching and I learned not to eat a chilli all at once or you will start crying in front of everyone! Most importantly I saw why we run for NAG - we run to give these children meals to eat; we run to give these children equipment; we run to create childhoods, and we run to give opportunities that would previously be unthinkable for the energetic, appreciative, proud, kind-hearted students of NAG."

These examples show that real-life experiences can harness a sense of consciousness and compassion within students that they take away with them in their daily lives. The connections that the students make between what we do and why we do it is so valuable and ultimately adds meaning to our PDW efforts.

The last contribution to this article depicts a student-led PDW to the island of Lesvos in Greece. Leoni and Luise in Grade 11 worked hard all last year to pitch for and ultimately be granted the opportunity to travel to Lesvos to work first-hand with migrants alongside the organisation ‘Because We Carry’. It had been their passion and goal since hearing about the plight of migrants in one of their Grade 9 Individuals and Societies lessons, and the trip itself was all down to them:

Greece: Putting a Face to a Name

By Clint McCowan, teacher chaperone

Our group recently returned from a student-led PDW to the refugee camp Kara Tepe in Lesvos, Greece. During our debrief of the week, many students described how this was the most transformative experience of their lives. Students felt that the atmosphere in the camp was unlike anything they had ever experienced.

We collaborated with refugee volunteers on a variety of challenging tasks and projects. These interactions led to many special relationships between students and refugees.

Students should be commended for raising 8,500 Euros for the Kara Tepe refugee camp. In addition to purchasing diapers, bottles, formula, and blankets, the funds were used to provide daily breakfast and additional food supplies for self-cooked meals to 1,300 refugees for the entire week. All told, this provided some 18,000 meals! The students are keen to raise awareness of the plight of refugees, to volunteer in local refugee shelters here in Switzerland, and to begin planning and fundraising for next year's PDW to Lesvos. 

In a future article, Leoni and Luise hope to add their own contribution; for now however, they are still trying to articulate in words what this week meant for them, and how it has transformed everything that they know or thought that they knew. If that in itself does not represent the power of service learning, then I do not know what does.


¹ hooks, bell and Mesa-Bains, Amalia: Homegrown: engaged cultural criticism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press. 2006.  

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