John Meislin started a study abroad program for outstanding teens of modest means
The Student Diplomacy Corps gives rural and urban students a chance to see the world while deepening their understanding of global issues – and each other.
NEW YORK — Dezarae Mustain is waiting for her flight to Spain with big-eyed excitement. Before her flight to New York the day before, she had never been on a plane. In fact, she had never even driven very far from her hometown in sparsely populated Wyoming.
Now she’s heading “clear across to the other side of the planet” to study Basque culture, meet an array of different people, and perhaps “become more accepting of others and how they live and stuff,” says Dezarae, who will be a junior next year at Rock River School just outside Laramie and is one of eight students in her class in a town with fewer than 300 residents.
Earlier this year, she and about 145 other soon-to-be high school juniors or seniors were accepted into the Student Diplomacy Corps, a two-year-old nonprofit group that helps give underrepresented students from rural or urban regions a chance to see the world, deepen their understanding of global issues, and get the kind of experiences college admissions committees love to see.
“I told them I was interested in the bigger questions, the ‘what’s the meaning of life’ sort of stuff,” says Dezarae, who lives with her mother, a single parent who works with people with disabilities in Laramie.
John Meislin, one of the three founding directors of the Student Diplomacy Corps, knows that talented students like Dezarae rarely get the chance to go abroad for the kind of education programs that wealthier, better-connected high school students do.
He’s worked in the sprawling industry of high school summer abroad programs for decades, and has worked firsthand with many of the excellent fee-for-service programs that provide students everything from adventure tours to educational opportunities in countries around the world.
“But it’s fundamentally wrong that student diplomacy is reserved for those who can afford to go abroad,” Mr. Meislin says. This year, his organization will send students to 10 countries on four continents, including China, Morocco, and Uruguay. Each student receives a scholarship covering 80 to 85 percent of the cost.
The Corps does not advertise or produce brochures. Instead, Meislin and his co-directors build relationships with inner-city mentoring organizations, rural high school guidance counselors, and organizations that can identify and nominate underserved students. Around 500 incoming juniors and seniors went through a rigorous application process that included three written essays and a personal interview – in many ways meant to simulate the college application process.
“If only upper- and upper-middle-class people are able to access international education and have these formative experiences that allow them to see the world and understand themselves on a deeper level, then most all our leaders and the people who go and do international business or anything like that, they’re most likely going to be from that kind of upper- and upper-middle-class background,” says Madelaine Eulich, a team leader for a group of students studying the culinary traditions of France.
Both Ms. Eulich and Meislin point to their own early trips abroad as some of the most important experiences of their lives – values-shaping moments. Meislin is still in contact with the family he stayed with in France during a summer abroad program in 1976, he says.
After he returned home, he shared with his friends what an important experience he had had, though many of them didn’t have the means to go themselves.
His mother pointed this out to him.
“She said, ‘John, you understand that there’s a fairness issue here, that your friend doesn’t have the opportunity to do these sorts of things,’ ” Meislin says.
“This is one of the main characteristics that make [the Corps] so special, how they work with those with few opportunities all around the world,” says Chantal Mayer, founder of AIPC/Pandora, an organization based in Madrid that partners with the Corps. “It’s amazing how John knows lots and lots of institutions and people all over the world, to raise the money and recruit the people who would never have the opportunity to travel. And the young people he recruits are fantastic.”
The Corps had more than 350 donors this year, including individuals, foundations, and other organizations. It works with more than 100 sponsoring partners, not only US inner-city organizations and high schools but many in Europe and Africa and elsewhere.
Though most Corps participants are from the United States, students from eight other countries are also part of the program this year.
Kwabena Ayim-Aboagye, or “Kwabs,” as his friends at Choate Rosemary Hall school in Wallingford, Conn., call him, is about to head off to Spain to explore art and flamenco.
Kwabs is from the Bronx in New York, where he lives with his mother, a nurse and immigrant from Ghana. He’s a classic overachiever: president of his high school’s poetry slam club, captain of the track team, and defensive tackle for the football team.
“For me, I just think it’s important to see how people live around the world, because it’s the greatest tool for having empathy,” says Kwabs, who earned a fellowship to help him attend the exclusive boarding school. “To understand other people’s lives, just ‘to see,’ basically, or to go to another country and live that life instead of just being a tourist – I think that will help me be a better person in the future.”
Each Corps team consists of about 10 students. The three-to-five-week programs begin with a cross-cultural orientation – scavenger hunts to explore every nook and cranny of the city or region, Meislin says, and “survivor” crash courses in the language to help the student “go native.”
This is followed by a weeklong seminar on the program topic. In China, students will meet with environmentalists and travel to the Panda Institute in Chengdu to study the region’s biodiversity. The Morocco team will join local musicians in a “songs for peace” program; the Uruguay team will explore gaucho culture in the Southern American pampas.
“In private schools, they talk a lot today about grit,” Meislin says. “You know, what it takes to succeed in life in a difficult world.” The students nominated for the Corps are often multilingual and often have dealt with the cross-cultural conflicts that their parents faced as recent immigrants. “They already have a kind of diplomatic expertise, a cross-cultural sensibility,” he says.
The cross-cultural experience is not just about going abroad. Team members also develop relationships with each other.
Beta DeFlorian from rural Wisconsin and Elba Obregon from East Harlem in New York, both on the flamenco team going to Spain, got in contact with each other beforehand. Since Beta’s parents were driving her to New York to catch her flight and join fellow team members, Elba’s family invited them for a tour of the city.
Terry and Tanya DeFlorian were pretty dumbstruck by the flashing din of Times Square after they were taken on a tour of midtown by Elba Ochomogo, mother and namesake of Elba.
“There are more people in Toys R Us right now than are in our town,’ ” says Mr. DeFlorian, a military contractor at Fort McCoy near Sparta, Wis., recalling the visit to the famous toy company’s flagship store.
Both sets of parents express a special pride in their daughters as they take selfies with other team members at J.F.K. Airport. “Our local newspaper put Beta on the front page, too, so everyone in town knows that Beta is going to Spain,” says DeFlorian, laughing as he notes that the paper only has six pages.
Says Meislin: “Our students may not know how to use a debit card, may not know how to navigate a big airport. But they’re pretty sure that they can make friends; they’re pretty sure that they can blow apart stereotypes that create prejudices.”
• Learn more at http://sdcorps.org.
How to take action
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