music in the park san jose

When some students earn good grades and serve as role models in
the classroom, they get a pat on the back and maybe a boost in
allowance. But for a group of students in the South Valley, hard
work translated into an educational journey to the other side of
the world.
When some students earn good grades and serve as role models in the classroom, they get a pat on the back and maybe a boost in allowance. But for a group of students in the South Valley, hard work translated into an educational journey to the other side of the world.

Three students from Gilroy and one from Morgan Hill recently returned from a trip to Australia as part of the People to People Student Ambassador Program, an organization that provides international travel opportunities for grade school, middle school and high school students. Another student, from Hollister, is in Washington D.C. now as part of the program.

During the People to People experience, students travel with 30 to 40 other students from their region and learn more about a new country or a distinct U.S. city. Although they are led by chaperones, the students also learn more about becoming self-sufficient and responsible.

“Seeing a different culture, I saw that they’re not much different than us,” said Nicolas Slater, a 12-year-old student at South Valley Middle School who went to Australia. “There are differences, but it was cool to see how other people live.”

Aside from experiencing firsthand certain cultural differences – how Australians refer to breakfast as “brekky,” for example – Nicolas said he also learned more about being independent and taking care of himself when his parents weren’t around. The group left July 31 and returned Aug. 13.

“It taught you to be more responsible,” he explained. “It wasn’t the leaders’ job to get you. You had an alarm clock, and if you weren’t up, they were coming to your room. You had to do your own laundry, take care of your money and make sure you didn’t leave anything in the hotel rooms. It really taught you responsibility.”

The Selection Process

To participate in People to People, students can either apply or get nominated. Nominations can come from teachers, school administrators and People to People alumni. Often, those who nominate students choose to remain anonymous.

People to People representatives also research national academic listings to select top-grade students – the same listings that colleges and universities use to pinpoint especially outstanding students. Students then interview with People to People representatives before the final selection process begins.

Though good grades are a major consideration in the selection process, People to People representatives also look at extracurricular activity, participation in the community and athletic ability. About 150 students applied or were nominated – most from San Jose or the peninsula – before the final students who went to Australia were selected in October. Meetings – both formal and informal – with the students, their parents and People to People representatives began in November, and by June the students had become friends, said Chris Slater, Nicolas’ mom.

“It was still amazing when they got back how much closer they were, because they had to rely on each other,” Chris said.

While in Australia, the students toured the Sydney Opera House, took a cruise to Sydney Harbor, visited Paradise Beach and went on rainforest walks. They also spent a night on a farm, learned how to throw boomerangs and snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef.

Domestic Trips

People to People, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, offers programs on all seven continents. Students can also take trips to distinct U.S. cities such as Washington D.C., where Hollister resident Alex Engelhardt is now. He’ll return Sept. 17.

While there, Alex, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Rancho San Justo Middle School, will visit the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum, the International Spy Museum, and both the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and the National World War II Memorial, said his mom, Julie Engelhardt. The students had dinner at the Saudi Arabian Embassy this week, and on Tuesday night they attended a special People to People anniversary party with keynote speaker and nightly newsman Tom Brokaw.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” Julie said. “I’m so pleased that (Alex is) able to do this, especially at such a young age. I know it’s something that he will remember all of his life. It’s really a life-altering experience.”

The cost of each People to People program varies from destination to destination, but generally speaking, tuition covers ground transportation, meals and lodging. Airfare is not included. The total for each student going to Australia, for example, was $4,700, Chris said.

Students and their parents can be as creative as they want in raising funds. Nicolas held a garage sale during the spring and sent out letters seeking sponsorship. Julie and Alex sought money from the Hollister Women’s Club, Ridgemark Golf and Country Club, and private donors. Julie also held an e-fundraiser where friends and family could order books online, with a percentage of the earnings going toward Alex’s trip.

Raising the necessary money requires hard work, but People to People students and their families say the experience is worth it – even if it means families are apart from each other for a while.

Jessica Chizanskos, a fifth-grader at Saint Mary’s School in Gilroy, came back from Australia feeling more mature than her 10 years. She was the youngest of the group to go on the trip.

“I liked when we went to the opal store,” she said in a quiet but confident voice. “And we stayed with a family on a farm. We learned how to use a whip and throw a boomerang.”

When asked if she missed her parents, Jessica didn’t seem fazed.

“The last couple of nights I did,” she said. “But the rest of the time, we were busy having fun.”

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