In the eight years since it was founded, Learning AFAR has opened the world for more than 900 underserved students who might otherwise never leave their neighborhoods.
On these organized group trips to countries from Costa Rica to China, as well as in the United States itself, thousands of lives have been changed. Those of the students themselves, members of the communities they visit, as well as those of friends and family back home, when they share the sense of wonder and confidence that travel can provide.
At the end of 2017, Cathay Pacific Airways helped continue Learning AFAR’s mission and joined with AFAR Magazine to send ten students from Oakland, California on a trip to Cambodia. The full cost of travel, from passport applications to plane tickets, was covered for the students, who were selected following an application process that considered financial needs, GPAs, and teacher recommendations.
Over 11 days, they would visit some of the country’s iconic sights—Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat, and the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh among them—but Learning AFAR is about more than visiting a country’s landmarks. The US students met with Cambodian students to share their different perspectives and life experiences. In addition, they volunteered on local community development projects, and while the US students shared their computer skills, they, in turn, learned crafts from residents of Cambodia’s villages.
The trip challenged them to get out of their comfort zones and open themselves up to new experiences. Most notably, when they were offered an opportunity to try fried spiders—every student accepted that challenge.
For some of the students, the first new experience was simply boarding a flight—as many had never flown before. That was one of the reasons why one of the students, Cynthia, was determined to apply. “I’d never been inside an airplane,” she says, “I want to step up the challenge and go all the way to Asia.”
Once in Cambodia, the students were struck by how travel makes every aspect of daily life different. Evelin, another student, explains, “Everywhere you go, there’s something different to learn. I like that—you expand your knowledge of different things, and you grow as a person.”
And yet despite the different languages, Evelin was surprised by how much communication was possible. After visiting a school in Cambodia, Evelin recalled, “When you are playing a game, you don’t really need to speak the same language to have fun and laugh. I had a great time, and we exchanged cultures.”
For some students, the most striking aspect of their travels was the happiness of the people they met, despite the relatively difficult circumstances of their lives. “Their school was small, they didn’t have that many resources,” another student, Fernanda, explains. “But they do the most they can with what they have. We found similarities between us, because we all enjoy doing the same things to have fun.” For others, the trip led to a newfound appreciation of the comforts, and resources, they have back home. “My parents didn’t get to go to school, and just being here [in Cambodia] makes we want to go to school even more, as many kids here aren’t able to. I should take advantage of the opportunities I do have.”
When asked what was the greatest lesson they will take away from their trip, the answers were often inspiring. Edwin says that now, “I want to live life knowing I’ve done what I wanted to do, not stopped by fear but embracing the things I am passionate about.”
For Gil, the trip taught him the value of reaching out to different people. “When you talk to people who are not the same as you and who have different beliefs, you are no longer in your little cave. You learn that while we are different, we can get along.” Fernanda hopes the trip to Cambodia was just the first in a lifetime of travel. “It’s inspired me. I want to pursue a career that will let me help provide other countries with access to education and technology. I want to be a part of that now.”
Kimberly summed up the feelings of many of her fellow students after visiting Cambodia: “I want to travel the world. I want to go to many places. There are so many things I want to do, but traveling you see everything. You get so many perspectives.”
Cathay Pacific Airways