Minnehaha Academy Blog

Discover a New Story: Building Empathy Through Cultural Field Experience

Posted by Amy Barnard on Jan 16, 2020

2019-CFE-Sorting-Clothes long

Packing donated clothes for the children's home.

Last spring’s Cultural Field Experience (CFE) trip to Roatan wasn’t Abbi Slininger’s first cross cultural venture. At seventeen years old she’s already made her way to Costa Rica, Europe, and Bora Bora with her family.

In spite of this, Abbi's trip to Roatan impacted her in ways these previous excursions didn't.

"I realized that I want to live my life so that I give back...It will make me a better person and impact others if I’m not just thinking about myself," Abbi explains.

Abbi joined ten other students along with Principal Jason Wenschlag and science teacher Nancy Cripe in Roatan, a little island off Honduras, to volunteer at a children’s home this past spring.

2019-CFE-Abi-with-Ana copy

Abbi teaching a student at the home she spent a lot of one on one time with how to make friendship bracelets.

The group helped children in the home with homework, assisted in setting up the new tilapia farm (a source of both food and income for the home), taught crafts, painted walls, and joined a local church in their outreach to some of the poorest families on the island.

While there, the students also heard the children share the various and often difficult journeys that brought them to the home.

"I was surprised that some of them were willing to share, and that they still wanted people in their lives [after what they had experienced]," Abbi shares.

She says getting to know the children and the time she spent meeting people during the church outreach made her aware in a new way of the needs of others, as well as the very different stories that make up the tapestry of our world.

CFE Water Quality Stand in copy

Testing water quality in preparation for the small tilapia farm that alum Randy Bevis '87 prepared for the home. MA students brought additional materials and taught the older children at the home how to test water to keep the farm healthy.

These are exactly the glimmers of understanding that CFE Director Jessa Anderson hopes to see increase in the coming years at MA.

"We want something deeper than traditional service learning for CFE," she says. "We want students to be developing empathy, building relationships, and learning to be better global citizens."

This is a tall order. In a world where "service learning trips" face increasing scrutiny, at times seen as little more than badges to stick on a college application, or (hardly better) as a chance to feel good about doing something nice, Ms. Anderson wants more for MA students.

"It’s not just going and serving in a place and leaving," she explains.

Instead, she wants students to learn about the places and people they serve in ways that deepen their respect and empathy, as well as help them feel connected to people who may be very different than themselves.

For Anderson, this isn’t simply a matter of theory or nice ideas she learned in a seminar on social justice. As a small child, her family moved to an economically depressed neighborhood to be part of a church plant and serve the community. In a later season of life, she heard people’s stories in Northern Ireland and South Africa while serving on a peace-building and reconciliation ministry team.

These encounters changed how Anderson sees the world and sees individuals.

2019-CFE-Paint-Supplies-Drying copy-2

Paint rollers drying after MA students helped with bathroom renovation. 

The question facing her today is this: How do you help an entire school prepare for CFE in a way that might facilitate these mindset shifts?

This year Anderson is preparing empathy-building activities for students to use during team meetings and then take on the road and into their CFE encounters.

In keeping with the year's theme—"Discover a New Story"—teams will discuss the value of learning each other's stories and discuss how to ask good questions while avoiding those that might not be so helpful. From there, a pack of conversation starters will help them draw out their teammates' stories.

Once students arrive at their CFE sites team leaders will encourage them to use these new skills to learn from the people they meet.

Whether playing bingo at a veteran's home, repairing a house in rural Kentucky, or working with an environmental conservation group in Guatemala, Anderson hopes that hearing the stories of others will bring a greater sense of connection to the wider world.

For 2019 CFE participant Langting Deng, helping immigrants improve their English at the International Institute opened up just that type of connection.

2019-CFE-International-Institute-2 copy

MA students at the International Institute helping immigrants with their English.

Langting shares that she stepped into the experience with no small amount of hesitancy: herself an international student, she wasn’t sure how much she had to offer these adult language learners from Ethiopia, Chile, and other nations that seemed so far removed from her life back in China or her days at Minnehaha Academy.

But sitting alongside them at simple folding tables in the Institute's classrooms, Langting was surprised to find that her own experience as a second language learner gave her common ground with these adults. That common ground then opened doors for deeper revelations.

"I realized that there are a lot of people in the world who are similar to me; each person has their own struggles and each person is working very hard, even harder than I am sometimes."

"When we have the opportunity to go out and see people in different settings it stretches us and it broadens our view," says Anderson.

"It’s really easy to live in a bubble where you’re comfortable...When we actually see and experience [different settings] we learn to respect those realities and to empathize with people’s stories."

Roatan5 copy

Nicholas and student at the home building a model airplane.

Send me information about Minnehaha Academy!

Topics: Upper School, Cultural Field Experience, Caring Community

Subscribe to Email Updates