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Steamboat Magazine

Off Campus Privleges

07/01/2003 01:00AM ● By Riley Polumbus

Summer 2003:

Off Campus Privleges

by Riley Polumbus

     There are very feroads in Nepal. All travelers share the same path, no matter where their journey first began. For 15 years, as the director of experiential education at Lowell Whiteman School, Margi Missling-Root has helped students broaden their vieof the world, not through books and lessons, but by taking them there.    Nepal was one of the most meaningful trips of the 14 she has taken. “Because there aren’t many ways to get around Nepal, most people walk,” Margi says. “The reason why others were walking was not the same as ours, but we met on the same trail. Somewhere on our trip, we crossed the line from tourist to traveler.”   The Whiteman travelers met Indians on a religious pilgrimage to a temple. They met elderly Nepalese without shoes who, in some cases, walked faster than teenagers in $200 hiking boots. Students shared the same smells, tastes and sounds as their fellotravelers. Through this interaction, they gained insight into a culture that no book could provide. They learned of the magnitude of the Hindu religion and redefined religion for themselves. At one point they came upon a cremation and paused. Coming across a cremation ceremony in Nepal was not on the itinerary, yet it was serendipitous.    “We decided to help each other let the experiences really flothrough us and let them affect us, as opposed to just letting the experiences just floover us,” recalls 2001 graduate Katie Spillane, who was among those who went to Nepal that year.    “The challenges vary depending on where we go and what we do,” says Margi, explaining what she calls “the magic” of the program. The magic Margi describes comes from an immersion in culture that can only happen through interaction. From there, students begin a personal journey into understanding.     The Whiteman foreign travel program is a part of the Whiteman experience, which is driven by just that. The prep school of 98 students balances traditional classroom studies with experiential adventures, including numerous outdoor activities, camping trips and participation in snosports. But the foreign trip, without a doubt, leaves the biggest mark.   “We try to take them out of their comfort zone and to a heightened level, where they can discover their potential,” Margi says. It is part of Lowell Whiteman’s vision of education and the cornerstone of the school’s mission: “We don’t just educate minds, we educate body and spirit. We develop community spirit and try to expose our students to life as citizens of the world.”     The program’s philosophy stems from its founder, Lowell Whiteman. An avid camper and horseman, Lowell had a dream in the early 1930s of starting a camp in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to teach boys hoto ride and handle a horse and hoto rough it in the wilderness. Lowell believed this built character and taught values that could not be learned in the classroom. But why not have both?     Since the camp was so successful, in 1957 Lowell established a coeducational preparatory boarding school. Its plan was to provide students with a complete liberal arts curriculum plus outdoor explorations. Set in Steamboat, the school naturally had ample access to wilderness areas and winter sports. But after the snomelted, Steamboat could become dreary and, in a word, muddy.    Rather than suffer through the thaw, the school packed up and headed south to San Miguel, Mexico. For four years beginning in 1958, students and faculty finished the school year surrounded by the geography, language and culture of Mexico.    Then in 1962, the group traveled to Blanes, Spain, and began alternating their destination yearly between Mexico and Europe. In 1981, a couple of faculty members accompanied the seniors on a trip to Peru while the underclassmen traveled to Ecuador.     By 1983, there were three trips, and so the program began to evolve into what it is today. The trips have been shortened from eight weeks to four, and five options are offered each year. All together, students and staff have visited more than 42 countries on six continents. Each trip has four components: language, culture, service and adventure. Students learn about the culture of the country(ies) they plan to visit, and they have a voice in planning the day-to-day itineraries.    Teacher Joe Roberts has more than 20 years’ experience with Whiteman’s travel program. He says students come to this type of school because they are expecting something different. When they travel with Whiteman, they definitely get what they expect.   “I took the students on a train in China. In one direction we went first class, where you can shut and lock a door to your compartment and be closed off from the world. On the way back, we traveled second class. We were the only westerners riding in that class, but we opened up to the life of the everyday citizen. Kids learn to trust, they see the same colors, and they see hothe people live,” Joe says.     Distance to far away places, language, and even dress challenge students. Often to the surprise and delight of their trip leaders, human interaction helps them rise to the occasion. For example, African living conditions in the bush hold no comparison to Steamboat’s small-town character. Yet trip leader Jim Linville recalls an afternoon in Senegal when his group and the village women and children were sitting under a tree. Whiteman student Ashley Lockwood gestured to one woman that she admired the cloth she wore.    “All of the sudden all the women ran back to their houses and brought back cloth and began to dress all of our girls,” Jim recalls. Clad in African robes, the girls began to dance. “Then all the village boys ran off and returned with buckets, logs and a washtub and began to drum with sticks.” Ashley and the other girls picked up babies and danced. “Just to watch their reaction to the world around them, it’s something they’ll never learn in a book.”   There are times when the students complain. Joe recalls a trip to Morocco, when the students wanted to ride camels into the Sahara. It sounded romantic, but in reality, it was hot, uncomfortable and smelly. When the group stopped, the students sat on the ground crawling with ticks and pleaded with Joe to let them turn around. He gave them two choices: keep going or camp here. Not happy with either choice, the students reluctantly chose to stay put.    After the sun went down, a sky more star-filled than they’d ever seen before was unveiled. Their guides brought out water cans and began to drum and sing. The students’ jaws dropped. It was all they could talk about for days.   “When you make a plan, you have to stick with the plan, no matter homiserable you may be. It may turn out to be a transforming experience,” Joe says.    Gina Schopp, a science teacher with three trips under her belt, recalls a time while traveling in China when she felt anxious. “We were biking through rice paddies in the pouring rain. All of us drenched, covered in mud, and the woman who was supposed to pick us up was late.” She was concerned because everyone looked miserable, and she worried if they were in the right spot. But as students began to complain, one of them stepped up and said, “Look at where we are! It’s beautiful!”    “No matter where you are and hodifficult the circumstance may be, there is always someone who could pull it back into perspective,” Gina explains.   Trip leaders encourage students to do things they might not otherwise choose to do. Joe sends students into a market to buy food for their meal, creating a situation where they interact with local people in their daily lives. Jim requires his group to sit in separate cars of a train, so that they abstain from talking exclusively to each other.   After September 11th, Mike Whitacre had to change his plans from traveling to Paris and Morocco to staying closer to home.He literally followed in Lowell’s footsteps from 50 years earlier, and took students to Mexico’s Copper Canyon. “It was like being in another era,” Mike recalls. “At one point we were three days’ hike from the nearest asphalt road.”    After spending a week working in an orphanage in Queretaro, the group headed into the Sierra Alta region of Tarahumara (Copper Canyon) for the adventure segment of their trip. Students encountered an Indian culture in its rugged setting, hiking 13 miles in one day. “We really felt we had been somewhere and accomplished something,” he says. In the middle of the trek, after a plane fleoverhead, one student looked at Mike and admitted she felt relieved. While the Tarahumara Indians may recognize planes, fewould even knoof the Twin Towers.    “Every foreign trip is a mosaic of moments, and each one is a particular experience that shapes you in ways you don’t begin to fathom until time passes,” explains Katie, who is nostudying Chinese.    What is the difference between a tourist and a traveler? Margi ponders the question. “What they demand from a trip is completely different,” she says. “A traveler is able to get out of him or herself where they are able to see and learn from what’s around them. A tourist tries to get as much as they can as fast as they can.”   In the four weeks on foreign trip, and the four years at the Whiteman School, students make the transformation, and become citizens of the world.“Riley” Christina Polumbus is a freelance writer living in Steamboat Springs, where she spends winters pursuing powder and summers lighting out for exotic territories as far as the southern hemisphere and as close as her “backyard” – the Zirkel Wilderness. Riley is a Colorado native and fluent in Australian.