Journey East Reflections

Journey East is an Asian studies immersion program here at Leland and Gray.

Tom Connor, the founder of Journey East, asked the alum of the program to write a reflection on how the program has affected their lives.

The Journey East Program, initially funded by the Freeman Foundation and with major support from the University of Vermont’s award winning Asian Studies Outreach Program, was created at Leland and Gray in 2000. Over 250 students from host Leland and Gray and area schools including Brattleboro, Twin Valley, Burr and Burton, Green Mountain, The Compass School, Bellow Falls and others have participated. Over 40 students from the aforementioned schools have brought their energy and talents to the high school in previous years, enriching the program and their home schools and becoming valued members of the Journey East community.


Morgan Mahdavi

JE 2007

Kalamazoo College 2014

Morgan MahdaviMorgan Mahdavi is Program Coordinator for the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. She is a 2014 graduate of Kalamazoo, where she earned a B.A. in Anthropology and Sociology. While at Kalamazoo, Morgan participated in the Philadelphia study-away program at the Philadelphia Center. There, she interned at Project HOME, whose mission is to empower individuals to break the cycle of homelessness through affordable housing, education, employment, and health care. In 2012, while studying abroad at the University of Nairobi in Kenya,she partnered with the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy (KGSA), a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged young women by providing free secondary education, artistic programming, and athletic opportunities. At KGSA, Morgan taught a sex education course and conducted an independent research project on the effects of such education in helping young Kenyan girls living in poverty stay in school. Pursuing her interest in youth health education, Morgan worked with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kalamazoo in their SMART Girls program. The program provides health and life skills to young girls ages 6-16; Morgan's work focused on teen dating violence prevention programming.

 ”It’s hard to pin-point the exact moment that ignited my spirit for adventure. There were so many factors along that way that contributed: I know having the multi-cultural parents I do and growing up in such a socially conscious community definitely laid the ground work. But when I really reflect back, at least in terms of my conscious spirit, I can confidently say it began with Journey East. Prior to tenth grade, I had notions of the larger world and had been fortunate enough  to have traveled to some faraway places--including France and the Dominican Republic--at  a young age.  Journey East, however, was more than just a cultural awakening for me. It was an educational revolution, an exposure to a new form of learning and living. I have always struggled in the classroom; I'd had a hard time sitting for hours on end and taking notes during lectures;  I struggle with memorization and have recently discovered that I may be mildly dyslexic which creates and has created a tremendous obstacle. Journey East is very similar to the experiential education model of education, which has provided me with some of the most important and influential experiences of my life. The hands-on, interactive, collaborative nature of Journey East allowed me to grow in ways I have been unable to develop in the strict, standard setting. Whether it was in Production Workshop at L&G or playing soccer with students at a school in Chongqing, I was introduced to a myriad of new possibilities for growth and improvement. And the most amazing thing for me as a 16 year old was that I didn’t hate learning this way. Over the course of our time in China and the whole Journey East experience, I got a taste of what it felt like to be learning in an engaging and rewarding way. At the same time, China exposed me to some of the hard injustices of the world. I saw inequality, poverty, disease and neglect in ways that made my heart tired and my eyes hurt. I remember at one high school we visited, a girl who’d name I can’t even remember now, gave me her necklace saying it was the only one she had, that her mother has given it to her before she passed and that she wanted me to have it so I wouldn’t forget her. This stung, that I had been afforded so much, to tour her country and live in a fantasy world for a month while she was giving me the one piece of jewelry she owned in a gesture that six years later, no longer has a face or name. My experience in China also awoke my thirst for social justice and a more equal world.

Since 2007, I have been fortunate enough to continue on this path, jumping from opportunity to experience to adventure back home, all the while growing and expanding in a constant quest for new knowledge and the fight for equality. Journey East directly fed into my next experience as it was recommended to me by a Journey East alum and Tom wrote my recommendation letter. In 2009, I once branched from the traditional educational path and went to Ladakh, India for the final semester of my high school career with the program Vermont Intercultural Semesters (VIS). My experience in Ladakh was one of the happiest in my life and once again reminded me the value of questioning the educational norm and the importance of finding what works best for me. In both VIS and Journey East, I did my final project about education in that country I visited which has continued to be a theme in my life in pursuit of social justice.

After the eye-opening experiences with both VIS and Journey East, I decided before college that it was time for me to take some time off of school. I went to live in Senegal for seven months and volunteer in a medical center for street children. My experience in Senegal, coupled with my decision to pursue a degree in Anthropology and Sociology with a concentration in African Studies at Kalamazoo College as well as my 6 month study abroad experience early this year, have lead me to, what I hope, the path of developmental work in Sub-Saharan Africa. Just before I wrote this, I bought my plane ticket back to Senegal for a month this summer with the money granted to me and a friend by National Geographic to return to do a photojournalism piece on the street children we worked with. It is amazing to me the opportunities and possibilities that have been opened to me through the networks and friends I have made through my travels. My life sometimes feels like it’s spiraling off into space, away from what is expected of me or from what all my friends are doing. I have chosen to pursue a more mobile, less stable path, at least for the next few years and I couldn’t be more excited. With each new experience, each new place, new person, new memory, my spirit of adventure grows bigger and hungrier, that spark that was ignited during Journey East has grown into a full flame and continues to push me to do new things and reach new limits. I can sincerely say that if it were not for Journey East, I would not be where I am today, physically and mentally. I think Journey East is an absolutely crucial opportunity for high school students.”


Giannina Gaspero-Beckstrom

JE 2012

Documentary film maker (“Finding Your Place”) in 2014

University of Vermont


Giannina need better“I was fifteen when Journey East carted me away from my safe, comfortable home in rural Vermont and shoved me into the real world. The thing about fifteen year old girls is that they don’t really get the “real world” thing; the only world they tend to be concerned with is their own. So when we placed down in China: busy, enormous, intimidating, unforgiving China, I was no longer a typical teenage girl. I was a unique and lucky girl who was about to experience the best month of her life.

The three months at home preceding our time in China were also wonderful. The group of 18 students that I was a part of spent each school day in almost constant company of each other, learning the Chinese language and about all aspects of Chinese culture, singing and playing in chorus and band and creating an original, goofy, hopefully entertaining art performance. I like to think that our teachers did everything they could to prepare us for China, but I think they held back on purpose. The shock of being in such an unfamiliar place is necessary to jumpstart such a powerful learning experience as Journey East. One day, we were students of teeny Leland and Gray High School in our tiny valley of Vermont and the next, we were students of China.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where and when Journey East changed me with more precision than in China, March/April 2012. The countless adventures that month had in store for us fostered an unbelievable amount of maturation and reflection. We climbed the Great Wall and Mt. Tai. We explored the Gobi Desert and Confucius’s birthplace. We were set loose in the middle of dizzyingly busy shopping streets and bombarded with Chinese students begging for our contact information afer a performance. When all those things become a daily occurrence, it’s hard not to learn anything.

It wasn’t until I was home again, kept wide-awake in the wee hours of the morning by jet lag, that I realized that I was changed by my time in China. I found myself more respectful of the mounds of schoolwork I had to do, because my workload was an anthill compared to the mountains of work faced by an average Chinese high school student. I joined more communities and clubs within my school to savor the freedom to choose what I wanted to do, because in China, many must decide their career as early as age 12 and focus on only that. I jumped at any travel opportunity that I could find, because I craved that feeling of utter unfamiliarity that I had become so accustomed to in China.

In all, Journey East made a more appreciative person. Appreciation and gratitude is something that everyone needs a little more of, and I think those attribute are especially powerful in young people. Journey East pushed me into the world, and I recommend every young person to have a similar experience.”

Torie Gervais

Journey East 2004


Wesleyan University

B.A. in East Asian Studies

Certificate in International Relations


Center for Teaching and Learning in China

Certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language


English Language Teacher

Beijing Normal University, Zhuhai campus


“Journey East and Beyond”


Torie GervaisUp until I was 17, I had barely even left New England.  My parents didn’t like to travel and we rarely went on family vacations.  When we did, it was usually only as far as Rhode Island or Vermont.  I had never been on a plane and I saw little chance for that to change.  My parents firmly believe that children should learn to be independent and start supporting themselves early, so my time was spent studying and working, and my money had to go toward more practical needs.  Travel was a luxury that I simply couldn’t afford and I frankly considered it to be something that just wouldn’t happen to me.

But then, Tom Connor created the Journey East program at my sleepy Vermont high school.  When Mr. Connor was my teacher in middle school, he infected me with his passion for travel, or as he would say, I caught the “travel bug.”  From the second I heard about the program, I knew that if I didn’t apply for it I would always regret missing the opportunity to escape small town Vermont and see places I had never dreamed of.  It took three years of convincing, but in the end my parents agreed.  So at the age of 17, I finally boarded a plane for the first time, bound for China.

As clichéd and melodramatic as it might sound, Journey East really did change the course of my life.  Before the program, I never had much passion for any of the subjects I studied.  When I was told to think about careers for the future, my mind went completely blank.  After going to China, I fell in love with learning about other cultures and I knew that I wanted cultural exchange to be a major part of my life from then on.

When I went to college, choosing a major was a simple decision.  I chose East Asian Studies and continued my love affair with China as I learned about the history, literature, and language.  I studied abroad in Kunming and lived with an amazing host family.  When I graduated, I applied to English teaching programs in China.  I moved to Shenzhen in 2009 and I’ve been living in China ever since.  Currently, I teach English at Beijing Normal University’s Zhuhai campus.

And now I sit typing this in my apartment in China, writing in English while listening to Chinese music, after having a conversation in Chinese about my surprise (and misfortune) at finding poison ivy in China.  I teach students who are all preparing to study abroad and I take every opportunity to challenge their preconceptions, encourage them to view things from multiple perspectives, and think critically about the world around them.  As we share our thoughts and ideas, I learn as much from them as they do from me.  Since living in China, I’ve also had the chance to travel to several other Asian countries and I never get tired of exploring new places.  So far I’ve been to Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.  Journey East was the catalyst that allowed all of this to happen.  Without Journey East, I may never have gotten the chance to travel to Asia.  I never would have chosen the major I did and I definitely wouldn’t be living and working in China today.  In the future, I hope to find a job in U.S.-China relations.  I plan to move back the U.S. in a year or two, but I never plan on leaving China and my experiences here behind. “

Katherine Seaton

Journey East 2005

American University 2012

(Note: Katherine is currently  attending the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Communications.)

Katherine Seaton“When Tom Connor asked me to write about my participation in Journey East he told me not to be bashful, so I won't be. Journey East 2005 changed my life. I applied because my parents wanted me to and all my friends were doing it and I was utterly scared when I got in and actually had to go to China but the start of the Spring 2005 semester opened an entirely new world for me. Learning about a new and different culture was intriguing to me and actually experiencing that culture for a month deepened my understanding of that culture and of myself. Not only did we learn about a country and the cultures that were ingrained in it but we also got to experience them.

I had such a profound reaction to my experiences (in Journey East) that I decided to work toward a degree in international studies. I graduated in 2012 from American University in Washington, DC with a degree in International Studies and a concentration on the Middle East and Northern Africa. Although I didn't pursue Asia as a regional study, I did spend much of high school trying to find a way to go back. In my junior year of high school I was awarded a Freeman Scholarship to go to Japan for a month and to this day I still keep in touch with my host family in Japan. As I transitioned to college in DC I decided to dedicate my time to a different part of the world and studied abroad in Morocco for a semester. Travel is always a life changing experience and again, my experiences in Morocco did not disappoint. I can say without a doubt that I've learned more from my travels abroad than in any classroom and I am currently seeking ways to travel again.

I recently worked at a non-profit called Search for Common Ground. It's an organization in DC that focuses on ending violent conflict all over the world. They have offices in 30 countries and focus on finding common ground between two conflicting parties rather than highlighting their differences.

I can honestly say that I would not have been in DC working for an international nonprofit if I had not participated in Journey East 10 years ago. Through my participation in Journey East I have realized that I have the potential to create positive change in the world and I am working toward that goal everyday. Journey East isn't just a month-long trip to China, it's an opening for small-town kids to learn about the vast potential they have at their fingertips.”

Callie Sopper


JE 2004

New York University


Callie Sopper“Before bidding farewell to our families for the longest time yet in our relatively short lives, Tom Connor led students and families to a grassy spot in front of Leland and Gray. It was ostensibly to allow us one last opportunity to draw the fresh Vermont air into our lungs, a sensation we would take for granted until we saw the cloud of smog that awaited us in Beijing. But this deep breath also set the stage for another message Tom wanted to impart: "Your children will not be the same when they return to you in a month," he said to our parents.

Certain impacts of Journey East were immediately apparent to me: it was the longest amount of time I had spent away from home, the longest plane ride I had ever taken, the most new friends I have ever made in one semester, the first time I had joined chorus: by far the biggest step I had taken outside of the euphemistic comfort zone.

While, I could sense that participating in Journey East was the biggest decision I had made up to that point, the full truth of Tom's message revealed itself more slowly to me.

The most obvious impact came in the form of an intense desire to learn more about China and a series of decisions to this end. After having dinner in Beijing with a School Year Abroad student and her host family, I felt the familiar "I want to experience that" feeling that I recognized from when I had first read about Journey East in the local newspaper. Journey East had instilled a certain wanderlust in me and the confidence necessary to actualize it; by the fall of my senior year, I was enrolled in School Year Abroad, Beijing. Since then, I have worked to use Mandarin in professional settings, including work as an RA for Middlebury’s language school, Johns Hopkins summer school in Hong Kong, and with an educational non-profit for recent immigrants in NYC. Most recently, I traveled to China as part of my company’s Quality Assurance department to assist with an audit and translate on the factory floor.

A more subtle impact of Journey East was the development of a particular lens through which to view the world. The program called on us to think more critically and analytically than we were accustomed to. We were asked to examine our particular frame of reference as participant observers in Chinese culture. I attribute my decision to major in Anthropology pretty directly as a furthering of these questions the program taught us to ask about the world. When I surprised myself by taking a job in bio-tech after graduation, I was glad to have a lens through which to make meaning of the business world in which I now felt like a participant observer.”

Kate Piniewski


Journey East 2005

University of Vermont 2013 Graduate

(This was submitted  to T.Connor by Kate days before she graduated from UVM in 2013)

Kate Piniewski‘Since returning to Vermont after my Journey East Program in 2005, I have spent a semester in Ladakh, India and have traveled to Greece, Panama, Senegal,  and the Gambia.

First it was one month away; then six weeks, and then four months, and another five months, and soon it will be twelve months. In December I will be moving to a rural village in Namibia to teach English for a year and I could not be more excited. But I have to attribute much of this excitement to my first experience with study abroad and intense cultural immersion. I wasn’t even 15 years old when my parents dropped me off at Bradley International Airport with a gaggle of other high school students who were abound with energy and enthusiasm for their adventure across the globe.

Journey East—or the idea of sending students during the school year—to China was still a unique, unprecedented program in 2005. My friends, family, and neighbors were shocked that a group of high school students were flying for 15 hours to perform an original show throughout one of the largest countries in the world. Throughout college I saw the amazement of professors, doctors, lawyers, and other prominent community members when I attributed my passion for international travel to participation in Journey East as a high school freshman. “A rural public school in Vermont sent students to China? Wow, very cool” is a consistent response. The four weeks we spent on stage, in villages, at restaurants, on the Great Wall, in schools, and on buses went by far too quickly. But for many participants, the flight home was not the end. Journey East expanded our comfort zones and broadened our horizons; I craved the energy and excitement of hoping on a plane to a new location. Since returning to Vermont that spring, I have visited India, Greece, Panama, Senegal, the Gambia, and soon Namibia.

Before April of 2005, I did not know that I wanted to study international affairs and cultural anthropology. I did not know that I wanted to travel somewhere new every year. I did not know that I wanted to meet people from remote villages in the furthest corners of the world. I did not know I was curious about global subjects such as food, religion, education, sports, art, music, and the environment. Journey East taught me that I was, that I am. The program instills a sense of confidence and the real-world skills provided are irreplaceable; Journey East sparked my interest in global adventures, and for that I will forever be grateful.”

Audrey Jones


Journey East 2008

University of Vermont Graduate 2015

“Journey East was one of the most rewarding and life changing experiences I have ever had. The program affected my life in ways I never expected.  It allowed me to form bonds with truly amazing people in both Vermont and China, with both students and teachers, and it gave me the opportunity to build bridges between cultures and become immersed in something exceptionally unique.  I can say with complete certainty that my experiences with Journey East influenced many of my later life decisions, including the decision to attend the University of Vermont and to study Chinese..  Journey East taught me so much, and I really would not be where I am now without it.”

(Note:  Audrey majored in Math and Chinese at the University of Vermont and spent two semesters studying at Yunnan University in Kunming, China.  Audrey was an RA in the highly regarded Middlebury-Monterey Language Immersion Program this past summer at St. Michael’s College.)

Emma Long


Journey East 2004

St. Michael’s College

Emma Long“My major at SMC was Journalism and Mass Communication with a minor in East Asian Studies … so, a ton of the courses I took at SMC were a result of Journey East. “

“I did two other 6-credit, month-long study trips abroad in college, as well;  one to China and Tibet in 2005 and another to India in 2006.  These were a direct result of my interest in Asia prompted by Journey East.”

Brendan Connor


Journey East 2000

Hamilton College

Brendan Connor

“I graduated from Hamilton in 2006 without any career prospects in particular. I landed a position with an investment firm. The Chinese stock market was up 70%, they were taking over the world, and “this kid speaks Chinese” - hired. I had zero qualifications.

My experience with Journey East leveraged me directly into studying a language that, not coincidentally, led me to where I am today, a partner and the Director of Research at Hillview Capital Advisors  in NYC.  

The fact that I spoke Chinese at the time at which I did enabled me to take on a terrific level of responsibility within our organization. The impact of China on the global economy, financial markets, the environment, the list goes on… is and will be a major factor in the world, for better or worse.

I'm amazed by the breadth of the program's impact in the community, and particularly on the curriculum available to students. It's awesome. Kids learning Mandarin at L&G today are going to be competitive with kids studying at private schools in New York spending $40,000 on tuition. The return on investment for this program is phenomenal. It was my privilege to participate when I did, and hopefully more students will have the same opportunity.”

Devan Piniewski


JE 2007

St. Michael’s College, Winooski, VT.

Devan Piniewski“Traveling to China with the Journey East Program was my first extended trip out of the country and left me with a severe travel bug.  From there, I went to Mongolia through SIT for a month of travel and service and then to Ladakh, in northern India, for a semester of school.

All of this led up to one of the most consequential decisions I’ve made in my life: deferring from college for a year, traveling and doing community service.  For some, a month-long trip shows them that they need to go straight to school; they fear that they would never go.  For a few students, traveling tells them to take a year off and experience the world while they can – no student loans, no jobs, and no real responsibilities.

On my year off, I went to Ecuador to teach English to elementary school children, and then to India to travel and volunteer at a boarding school for high school students who needed help passing grade ten examinations.  While in Ecuador, I learned most of my Spanish and decided to minor in it.  In India, I decided that I wanted to focus on large animals after veterinary school.

My travel experiences have given me something some students are not lucky enough to have going into college; direction and purpose.  Because of China and then Mongolia, India and Ecuador, I know exactly who I am as a person and what my goals are.  Most of my friends, as rising juniors, are still not at this point.  

I can confidently say that because of the experiences I had in the Journey East Program and the experiences I had later on – inspired by Journey East – I know who I am and where I want to go.”