Around the world in 25 days:

Lessons learnt from the Pestalozzi Alumni United States Expedition

If I asked you what part you thought education could play in changing someone’s life, what would your answer be?

For the last two months I have been in the USA and Canada and have spent part of that time working for Pestalozzi on our PAUSE campaign (Pestalozzi Alumni United States Expedition). The aim of the project was to meet with as many Pestalozzi UK alumni as I could and speak to them about their experiences at Pestalozzi and what they have gone on to do since leaving our programme.

The idea behind the project ran as follows; I would travel from Kentucky, up the East Coast of the US and into Montreal to collect the stories of twenty eight different alumni who are currently studying and working in North America. At least, this was the initial plan. In actual fact, at the time of writing this reflection, I have met with forty alumni from eight different countries. It’s funny how life always works out in ways we never would have expected.

The importance of access to an education is not something I ever had to think about growing up, because I lived somewhere where free schooling and an abundance of resources were available. In meeting with our alumni I learnt to understand the impact of receiving an education on their lives as individuals, but in doing this, a bigger question arose: what part can education play in changing the world?

Our alumni have built schools in Nepal and established non-profits in Zambia. They are computer science majors and chemistry minors, Harvard graduates, PhD students, engineers, published authors and refugee tutors. They have gone on to set up libraries in Nepal, teach classes in Ohio and build toilet blocks in rural Bhutan. The one thread of commonality running through all of these journeys is Pestalozzi. Without an education, how much of this would have really been possible?

In our office, we have a map of the USA on the wall, showing the names of our alumni and where they have gone on to study. Two months ago, that’s all they were to me, names, dates, and colleges. Now I can look at that map and see people, faces, and stories.

I have heard so many stories that have changed my perspective of the world. A student banned from entering school exams because their family couldn’t afford to pay the fees on time, yet they still came out top of the class. Someone who now earns a wage that is used to pay for the schooling of their brothers and sisters in their home country. Two alumni who remember crossing the border from Tibet into India when they were children.

Being able to travel across North America and run this project has been one of the biggest privileges of my life. When you are constantly meeting with people who have done things so much bigger than themselves and people who are always seeking out ways to serve others, it turns on a different part of your brain. Interactions become about creating meaning and trying to find ways to allow other people to access these same educational opportunities so they can go on to walk similar paths.

Conversation after conversation in work places, colleges, homes and any coffee shop we could find in-between. University libraries became places of inspiration and sending the message ‘green backpack, glasses, and ginger hair’, to make sure I was recognisable to the stranger I was about to meet became normality. Each interaction was filled with questions, from ‘which languages do you speak?’ to ‘what accomplishment are you most proud of’?’.

Statistically I could tell you the number of alumni I’ve met with (40), the number of states I’ve visited (10) and the number of border crossings I’ve done (6, but this is another story altogether). However the most important figure, being able to quantify the number of lives impacted by the work of Pestalozzi…this one is immeasurable.

Pestalozzi’s mission is to nurture students committed to contributing to the world in a positive way and all of this starts with access to education.

So, from Kentucky to Canada here are some of the lessons I learnt along the way:
  • 1.
    The power of education can be transformational. I have heard this sentence before, but this trip allowed me to truly understand it’s meaning. I have seen education used as a way to combat inequality and inspire more peaceful communities. If you’d have asked me what I thought education was when I was studying at school in England, my answer would be something based around books, lessons and homework. Whilst these are all important resources, especially if you’ve never had access to them before, it’s what you go on to use them for next that really matters.
  • 2.
    Two themes continuously arose in each conversation. The first was that every alumni showed a genuine desire to create real positive change within their communities and on a global scale and the second was that each person recognised that their time at Pestalozzi was far greater than just an academic education.
  • 3.
    The more alumni I met with, the more I felt both astounded but also unsurprised by their generosity of spirit, resilience and all they have achieved so far. The sense of desire to help others is usually naturally within all of our students when they are selected but it is often nurtured and flourishes within our community.
  • 4.
    Being exposed to diversity only enhances your life. Whenever I ask alumni about what they feel really benefitted their lives at Pestalozzi, so often the multi-cultural environment comes up as one of the most important factors. In today’s ever growing globalised societies, the ability to be a citizen of the world and be open minded towards the beliefs and values of others is more crucial than ever and it is such a key element of what makes Pestalozzi what it is. Whilst on our site in Sedlescombe, Pestalozzi students lived with students from nine other countries. Now through our partnership and new programme with UWC, our scholars will study alongside students from 90 other countries. I can only see the benefits of exposure to such diversity.
When I asked the question why is education important my favourite response was this:
‘Education has the power to pull people out of poverty’.

This statement is the artery that has run through the stories of everyone I’ve met on this journey.

There are many charities established now, doing incredible work for noble causes. But the impact I have seen by the work of Pestalozzi stretches far beyond the individual. Our organisation is a home and an experience like no other. It provides a space for some of the brightest minds in the world to come together. It is a family and a support network, a way to learn the importance of service for others and a commitment to learning and curiosity, not only through academia, but through the world and the people around us.

We no longer have our site in Sedlescombe, but the charity and the opportunities available to young people still live on. The community will outlast the buildings that we once all called home. The values can be carried in our hearts and shown in our everyday interactions.

And as for the legacies of our alumni? Really, those are only just beginning.

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