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.

Mitch Ellison


JE 2002

The Johns Hopkins University

Master's Degree, Biotechnology with concentration in Bioinformatics

2014 – 2015

Doctoral Candidate at the University of Pittsburgh

Mitch Ellison"The Journey East program had a major impact on my life. It was the first time that I was part of a truly exciting academic program with a diverse group of individuals from diverse backgrounds. The fact that this was coupled with overseas travel that took us to some of the most scenic and cultural places in the northern and eastern parts of China also greatly contributed to the overall experience. Thinking back on it I really can say that the impact of this program has created positive ripples thought out the timeline of my life. Traveling as part of a performing arts group took me out of my comfort zone and taught me that I could do things that I would have never imagined I was capable of before.

Since I participated in the Journey East program I have done many things that I would have never seen myself doing. Learning to have the courage to try new things and travel to new places was one of the major payoffs of the program for me. This newfound characteristic allowed me to go from Leland and Gray Union High to the United States Army and eventually Operation Enduring Freedom. Following service to my country I rekindled my interest in academics and have completed a series of degrees in the biological sciences. Today I am in the first year of a PhD program in Molecular Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of Pittsburgh. This is the terminal degree in my chosen field. All of these accomplishments I believe can in part be attributed to the kind of education that I obtained at Leland and Gray and specifically the courage to step out of my comfort zone, which is a direct result of my participation in the Journey East Program."

Thanks for all the opportunities and mentorship. I'm sorry I always fought it so hard.



Kim Soule

West Wardsboro

Parent and Chaperone, 2012

Kim Soule“As a parent of two JE alums and a chaperone of the 2012 trip, I am still awed by the power of this program and what it has given to so many students in Southern VT. I am honored to have witnessed the growth of the 2012 group in person. From the first performance of the show at home through it’s transformation and that of the students in China. The trip is a whirlwind of planes and busses, wake-up calls and ancient art, new foods, new schools and new ways to communicate. Away from the familiar it pushed us all to adapt, learn and grow.”  

 The following is from my 2008 Journey Easter Melissa Soule written a year after her return. “As much as I felt I knew about China before we departed nothing could have prepared me for the things that I would behold. There was more life in a glance than I had ever seen, careening and toppling in on itself in a frantic dance. We saw rolling cityscapes housing millions and hiked through villages painted into the landscape with daubed mud and dripping sweat.”

Robin Joslin


JE 2012

Robin Joslin”I sat in front of a large microphone, with big headphones on so I could hear the already recorded Mongolian and drum parts by Fraser and Stephen. All the while, Saqirila, the college music instructor, sat in a seat across from me, bobbing his head to the music and pointing at me when it was my turn to play. It took me a minute to get the hang of it since I’ve never done it before but, after a little bit, it got better, especially when Saqirila gave me a reassuring nod or grin. Just as fast as it started, it was over, and we were listening to the final product. The Mongolian performers mobbed us for pictures, which is always fun, but what seemed like a 10 minute process actually totaled up to nearly two hours. By then it was time to go and our crazy fast driver whisked us through the nighttime city scene as we chattered about how much fun it was.

I’ll never forget it.”

Samantha Chase

JE 2014

Green Mountain Union High School


Sam Chase Great Wall“China has forever changed my life. It began with new friendships which developed into new perspectives on the world. I was given the opportunity to see the world through a new lens. Going into the Journey East Program I was unsure of what was to come and whether I would enjoy my time with all the new faces. Soon enough I became best friends with Caroline Tietz, she guided me through hard times and through the troubles of a new school.

As we began to get ready to leave we were all anxious and eager to begin our journey over seas. When we arrived to China we instantaneously realized the change in our environment and it was absolutely breathtaking. There was a new culture that we were beginning to take in as we traveled to many different regions and connected with many different people. Inner Mongolia was perhaps the best place we went to because the bond we created with all of the students at the Arts College of Inner Mongolia. I didn’t know what the impact of the trip would be but I knew it would be extraordinary and it was.

There are many things that I have learned about myself from this trip. It started with realizing the importance of relationships. We live in a time where much of the communication is online but by spending a month with fifteen other kids, you realize how beneficial the face-to-face relations are. I also found a new love for human rights and discovered that you have the chance to change things despite any hardships. Now, going into my sophomore year of high school I am focusing on what I am passionate about which I know will open so many doors for me in the years to come. I am forever grateful for Tom Connor and the Journey East Program for opening my eyes to all the possibilities and opportunities!”

Jonah Ullman

JE 2012

University of Vermont

Jonah Ulmann“As a performing musician, the Journey East experience afforded me a tremendous amount of valuable experience.  All performers go through a long process of learning the many unexpected situations that may present themselves in a performance situation, and developing the ability to react appropriately.  Journey East participants learn the invaluable skill of reacting to the unanticipated and transforming such situations into beautiful new experiences, a skill that can be used in all facets of life.”

Tyler Gervais


JE 2008

Emerson College

Tyler Gervais“I went to China with the program in 2008. At the time I was in 9th grade and fifteen years old, it was the first time I'd been out of the country beside Canada. Journey East provided a unique opportunity for a group of young teens from southern Vermont to explore a much vaster world around them. It brought together culture and art into a comprehensive and rich program. I was able to learn and experience a culture much different than my own and unique to each city and village we spent time in. From one of the most advanced and populous cities in the world, to sequestered villages that had never seen Americans before.

It allowed me a life larger than the one I was living, and provided me motivation to see more of the world. I was lucky enough to visit England and France while still at Leland and Gray and since then have been given opportunities to travel to Peru and Mexico to work on a short film and documentary. My goals are to further expand my reach and bring together stories from all over the world.

Since leaving Leland and Gray, I haven't spent much time in Vermont. But whenever I go back, I am reminded of the opportunities it provided me and as I reflect back, it has allowed me to greater value and respect its culture. I am forever grateful for the program, Tom Connor, and those at the Freeman Foundation who made these trips possible. For many who have gone through the program, it provided a spark to their own personal journeys and allowed them to realize their potential beyond the confines of a small and singular world.”

Eric Ginter

JE 2012

Castelton University

Eric Ginter“I can’t even begin to choose a favorite time or memory in China.  I have seen sights that everybody worldwide should see; The Great Wall; Mount Tai; The Gobi Desert are a few of those.  

Our final performance and collaborative dance with the Mongolian students was one of the greatest nights of my life.

There are many similar memories, which I will never forget.  But, when I returned home and woke up the next afternoon, I could only think of how fortunate I am. I did see a few things that will never leave my memory;

Being continuously approached by an outstretched, empty hand belonging to the cutest, most sympathetic old beggar.  He would simply come up to you in tattered clothes, mutter a plea for charity in an almost silent voice, and look up at you with the deepest, most picturesque, dependent eyes, before hanging his head, overwhelmed with feelings of inferiority;

I remember seeing one man whose legs were deformed, sitting on a homemade cart singing beautiful Mongolian songs. Seeing a person that unfortunate with only a hat with the equivalent of a few dollars to spend in it breaks your heart;

When we went to the Lamasery I remember watching a monk in prayer for some time before being approached by a mother and her son, who was wearing a face mask. Hand in hand, the two neared the monk.  The child looked so sick.  The mother made her son kneel in front of the monk before she removed his mask and had him pray.  The monk put his hand on the boy’s head, said some words, and then had him rise.  The mother went through the same process and finished her visit by replacing her son’s mask and handing the monk a hand full of coin money.  I simply watched all  of this take place from a distance without blinking an eye.  Their belief was so intense I almost broke into tears. These images will never leave me  

Am I glad I saw these things?  Of course, I wish they didn’t exist but I am eternally grateful to have the lifestyle I have and also to those people I saw for teaching me the true meaning of pain so that I could appreciate and experience joy.”

Genevieve Darling


JE 2012

Hamilton College

Genevieve Darling Tree Planting“My reflection?  “Don’t’ take things for granted.  We’ve heard it all before but it is honest-to-god difficult thing to do until you experience missing something first-hand.  Going to China really put it into perspective for me.  There were no little things like milk, and we were often without western toilets (flush toilets, with seats).  I never considered I’d be without them but they really are luxuries not everyone possesses.  And I knew that China was considerably more polluted than home but I never really imagined missing being able to sleep outside any time and inhale the crisp, clean Vermont air so much.

The U.S. is so freedom-oriented, and it gets annoying sometimes – using “I have my rights!” to justify or contradict the most moronic things we do.  But I think freedom is also the thing we take for granted the most. We learned about how tight the government keeps a lid on things in China but being there was what made that really sink in. Kids in China spend a horrific number of hours in school; you spend your time at home studying; you pick your major and job in high school and you stick with it- forever!  You don’t have much free time.  You don’t really dance or do music unless you plan to do those for a living, you don’t have facebook or twitter or internet freedom………….. “Not that China is in any way some horrid hell-hole country void of rights” (but there are serious limits on personal freedoms that we take for granted)(TC)

Claire Miramontes


JE 2012

Clair Miramontes“Imagine:  You’re going across the world to, yes, China, with 18 people, some of whom you have know most of your young life.  Yet, when you come home a month later, you are with, what seems, new people and a new “self,” yet everything, to the eye, looks the same.  Maybe these changes happened when we saw beggars half-starving or eating mulch and paper while they were surrounded by other people.  Maybe it happened when we sat in a vast sea of sand with a never-ending blue sky and only our thoughts; or just maybe when we took our five hour bus rides together watching the city life and construction workers making their way across a village and farmland.” Whatever, something happened.  We all became a family in China.  We would notice each other’s flaws and accept each other for it because we also noticed good qualities that we enjoyed about each other.  You kind of had to when you spent every second with at least one of those 17 of your peers.  I don’t have any memories of China on my own that I believe I will ever forget.  I share every moment with all of these people so maybe that’s why relationships change through Journey East.  I mean, I can’t really know if I went with 17 other people

How different everything would have been or if the same relationships would have developed.  Maybe when you’re with the only people you can communicate with for an entire month you just tough it out and then bond.”

Anwyn Darrow


JE 2012

Anwyn Darrow“One experience that made me feel grateful for what I have was when the group visited prestigious high schools in cities like Chongqing and Chengdu.  I talked to so many students who work their …….. off from 7 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night and study in their spare time.  When I think about how much I complain when I have an hour of homework compared to the amount some of the kids in China have, it is embarrassing.  I don’t know if I could ever work as hard as they do at my age.  I remember having a conversation with a boy I met in Chengdu.  He told me that his only day off in a week is Sunday.  He spends Sunday studying.  He only receives one week off for summer vacation right after he takes the most important exam of his life.(Gao Kao)  I think that this experience also made me appreciate where I live more because of what he said to me. I can’t remember his exact words but I remember him saying something like “I am jealous of you because I think it is not as good that we have so much work. You have more freedom than us.”

Visiting China has also made me feel small in a way I have never felt before.

Visiting the Gobi and just seeing the huge cities and how many people I pass have made me think about how absorbed I can be in my own life, in my own little state.  When I was sitting on top of a huge, brown sand dune, I thought about how many people had been where I was sitting and how many people will go there after I leave.  I thought about how my footsteps would be erased as soon as the wind picked up and the sand swirled it across the dunes seconds after I ran down my tall dune to leave.  Then I think about how the Gobi is only one desert in the world and the part we visited, which seemed huge to me, was only a small part of it.  I remember the feeling of being really tiny and insignificant that day but it wasn’t a sad feeling, it was one of realization.”