Service Learning Reaches New Heights

By Ethan S. ’16
Photos by Maddie M. ’16
Group photos by Mr. Bondy
Video by Nicki A. ’15

On June 27, I was one of 23 LCDS students and chaperones who hiked into a school in Junbesi, Nepal, a hamlet buried in the Himalayas. We were there as part of a service trip to Nepal, one part of a broader, ongoing effort to provide Nepalese students basic educational tools such as computers, as well as to sow the seeds of a new student exchange with a school in Nepal.

The trip was the brainchild of Mike Simpson, Upper School English teacher and Country Day alum who has spearheaded community service initiatives at Country Day as director of service of service learning. He believes that service should happen internationally, as well as locally, and the Nepal trip was an example of that. Mr. Simpson envisioned a project that would give students the opportunity to do service while having the experience of a lifetime; we would look for ways to improve access to education for Nepali students while getting the chance to visit Kathmandu and trek through the Himalayas with friends.

Our path to Junbesi started in the fall of 2013, when Mr. Simpson went onstage during an assembly and told the Upper School that he was looking to bring a group of students to Nepal. Fast-forward eight months, and 19 students and  four chaperones are at Country Day at four in the morning, boarding a bus bound for JFK. After more than 24 hours in transit, we arrived in Kathmandu. Two days later, we took a daylong bus ride to the start of the trail, and followed that up with three more days of difficult trekking to reach Junbesi.

Junbesi is a remote village in the mountainous Solukhumbu District of Nepal. Solukhumbu is made up of two smaller regions, Solu and Khumbu. While Khumbu is home to many of the tallest peaks in the world, including Mt. Everest, Solu sits much lower. It is filled with lush mountains and has become a popular trekking destination. With 250 people in the village proper, and more than 1,500 in the immediate countryside, Junbesi is one of the largest towns in northern Solu. Despite its relative prominence, it is hard to access. Our multiday trek and bus trip from Kathmandu to Junbesi wasn’t some attempt at adventure or appreciating the scenic route; it was the only way to get from one place to the other.

Because so few people live in Solukhumbu, only some of the villages have schools. Every day, students walk up to four hours round-trip to reach Junbesi’s eponymous school, the nearest to them. The Junbesi school goes from kindergarten through 10th grade, the standard stopping point for schooling in Nepal. After 10th grade, those who want to continue their education must go to an expensive for-profit school in a major city, something out of reach for the vast majority of people in the mountains. Most students do not even make it to 10th grade: When we visited the Junbesi school, the older classes had a fraction of the students the younger grades did, and the oldest class was entirely boys.

The Junbesi school was unlike any school we had ever seen in America. At the end of its street, abutting the school, was a Buddhist shrine. All of the school’s classrooms were built around a rectangular dirt courtyard. When classes were in session, the courtyard was completely bare, except for a volleyball net in the center. The classrooms stood on two contiguous sides of the courtyard. There was one classroom for each grade, and two or three other rooms for administration and a computer lab.

The differences continued inside the classroom. Instead of students going to the rooms of different teachers throughout the day, each grade stays in its own classroom, and teachers come to them. Nepalese students accorded teachers a formal deference unknown in America; whenever a teacher entered the room, all the students would stand and greet him in unison. They would repeat this ritual whenever a teacher left the room.

A strikingly different learning style we saw was students chanting to memorize things. For example, a class learning multiplication tables would sing in unison, “Six times six equals 36, six times seven equals 42,” etc. Although the methods were different, the students in Nepal were learning many of the same things that we do: math, science, history, Nepalese and English. Classes were taught in either Nepalese or English, depending on the subject.

Once we arrived, we were welcomed by the vice-principal of the school. Then, we split up into groups and sat in on classes. After some initial awkwardness and giggles, we settled into seats and watched the lesson. One teacher invited seniors Athalie R., Caroline G., Grant G., Louis V. and junior Maddie H. to teach a social studies lesson, while Head of Upper School Eric Bondy challenged another class with a math problem.

After class, all the students had a break period and the central courtyard came to life. Earlier, we had noticed a number of volleyball trophies in the school, so we challenged them to a game of volleyball in which we were thoroughly trounced multiple times. Those of us who weren’t playing volleyball played with the little kids, or just sat on a bench and talked. Before all the Nepalese students went back to class and we said goodbye, we all gathered for a group picture.

I think I speak for all of the students on the trip when I profusely thank all of our parents, who let us venture to the far corners of the world on an adventure. Also, I would like to thank all of the chaperones: Mr. Bondy, Brandon Stetser, Katie Weida ’08, and especially Mr. Simpson.