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.

Chelby Nystrom

University of Vermont

Johnson State College

JE 2010

Chelby NystromJourney East definitely had a huge impact on my life and led me to then seek opportunities to travel as much as possible after that. I was only fifteen years old when I traveled to China with JE, but I felt like I grew up so much from it because I able to go to a part of the world that I would have never dreamed of going to and saw things that I will never forget. Being a blonde fifteen year old girl, I was mobbed by hundreds of Chinese students who would pet me and want my autograph. Being a shy innocent girl, it was definitely a shocker. I was just more in amazement that they could find me so interesting and diverse that they would want to actually pet me. Performing was also something that was something that was completely new for me. Being an athlete, I had not done much performing before the trip, but I think that it served as a huge confidence builder and it was nice to do something outside of my usual realm of activities. I gained a lot respect for performers along the way and learned a lot. I will never forget reading our Chinese story performance out loud to thousands of onlookers.

The summer after my junior year at Leland and Gray, I traveled to Poland and Slovakia with the Experiment in International Living through SIT for five weeks. I had the opportunity to be in Warsaw during the EuroCup, which Warsaw was hosting. I also had the chance to live with a host family for three weeks, which was such an incredible experience. I also visited Auschwitz, the Tatra Mountains, the Baltic Sea, numerous castles, a salt mine, and a few World War II bunkers. While in Poland, my group and I completed a three-week community service project as well. After graduating from Leland and Gray in June of 2013, I attended the University of Vermont for two years, majoring in Business Administration with a concentration in accounting and global business theme and a minor in Spanish. I studied abroad in León, Spain for six months. Living in Spain was hands down one of the best experiences of my entire life. I lived with a host family and studied Spanish five days a week with other international students. My host mother did not speak any English at all, and so it forced me to use my Spanish, which definitely helped me improve. I also had the opportunity to travel to Poland to visit my host family from my previous trip, as well as France, Belgium, Morocco, England, The Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Germany, and all over Spain. I made lifelong friends from the U.S., Australia, Gabon, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. I also became fluent in Spanish, which was my ultimate goal.

While abroad, I decided that UVM was just not the right fit for me, and so I decided to transfer to Johnson State College, where I am currently attending school. I joined the Women’s Varsity Cross Country Team, which is definitely new for me, but a very exciting challenge. I also had the opportunity to pick up a second minor in Global Studies (I know, big surprise!). I also have a few upcoming travel plans in the works: one is to travel to Thailand this coming May as part of a business ethics course that I will be taking this spring. The trip involves working to build housing for low-income citizens in a very poor region of Thailand; the other trip involves studying abroad again, in the spring of 2017, my last semester in college, in Costa Rica. Although I have already completed my minor in Spanish, I want to continue to study the language and improve my fluency. I also hope to take business courses in Spanish so that I can learn business vocabulary and terminology, which might be helpful later in my career if I work with Spanish speakers that do not know English.

All I can say is that Journey East definitely had a lasting effect on me. It got me out of Vermont and showed me that I can go anywhere, do anything with a little bit of hard work and determination. I think studying abroad would have been a much scarier idea had I not already traveled to China with JE. I will never forget sinking my toes into the Gobi Desert, running up the old, crumbling steps of the Great Wall, and cooing at the adorable panda babies in Chengdu. Someday I hope to travel back to China whenever the opportunity arises and I hope that Journey East continues to exist for as long as possible because it one of the most unique, fantastic opportunities out there for high school students. If college student applications were accepted, I would apply again tomorrow!


Summer Bills


JE 2014

Grade 12 – Leland and Gray

Summer BillsWhen people ask me "how was China," all I can say is that it was amazing. I cannot find the words to fully express just how it truly was.  

There is no way to explain the things that were running through my mind while getting into the car of a stranger who spoke no English knowing that I was going to be sleeping at their house. There is no way to express the joy that over took my body when I walked into the Mongolian kindergarten.

There are no words in the English language that could allow me to describe to anyone the feelings and emotions that were going on in my mind while seeing the faces of the homeless when receiving as much as a half a loaf of bread; or even a simple box of left –over food. The sadness in their eyes when they realized all they could give me in return was a simple handshake, was enough to rip you apart.

I never really realized just how fortunate I was until we were walking to the bus after touring the Summer Palace. Seeing the homeless men and women sitting half clothed in the middle of the sidewalk doing anything they could to make a penny. It broke my heart, it tore me to pieces to see a man with no hands still painting with both elbow-high amputated arms. He pushed himself to sit there and suffer through the stares, the disgusted looks, and the comments just to be able to survive another day.

So, if you ask me "How was China?" Please don't expect a heart felt answer, because I can’t even give myself one.

Emma Urbaska


JE 2014

10th Grade – Leland and Gray

Emma UrbaskaReflecting on the last month of my life is something that I’m sure I’ll never fully do. It’s not that I’m not able to do so, it’s merely something that constantly has be changing my mind on how I feel about the experience. I have been Back in America for less than a week and already the experiences that I loved having in China I now hate thinking about, and the experiences I had a hard time dealing with then, I’m now grateful for. That’s the thing about this trip, it changes you.

For me, it changed the way I see myself, the way I see my friends and family, and the way I see the rest of the world. Yes, one spend a month in China and visit the Great Wall and eat with chopsticks and use squatters, but saying that that person had a similar experience to our own would be a complete lie. I feel as though I was able to see China through a peasants eyes, a students eyes, and an upper-class business man’s eyes as well as my own, which is something that takes a deep cultural immersion to occur. Our group definitely had that.

I believe that I’ve changed and grown so much as an individual because of this trip and have been able to open my eyes to a whole new way of the world. Journey East has inspired me to be more independent and more free. I find that I don’t worry about the little things as much as I used to, prior to our month in China.

Before we left on our journey, many people told me of the great ties they had with their friends on the trip and how close everyone became, yet no one mentioned how close they became with themselves. Of course, becoming close with your group is a very important part of the journey, but being with the same group of people for a long amount of time will naturally bring anyone together. Self realization, on the other hand, doesn’t always happen so easily. Luckily, I’m able to say that I experienced this.

The culture and passion I found in China ignited the passion in my own self to do what I love and accomplish what I’m able of accomplishing. It wasn’t the big cities or the famous monuments or anything of that nature that was the turning point of my trip, it was the every day way of life in china, the beggars on the streets, the crowds, the traffic, the people. These things made me realize my own way of life and my many possibilities for a future I choose. I am so grateful for my time in China, there are no words just right for explaining the many emotions I have for such a wonderful experience. The memories that I made and the memories that our group made together are ones that I will always keep in a special place in my heart.

Susie Francy

S. Wardsboro

JE 2014

Grade 11 – Leland and Gray

Susie Francy“The instant I arrived at the airport in Hartford and fell into the arms of my crying mother, I was asked, "How was it?" and my mind immediately blanked. I was trying desperately to think of something succinct yet poetic about how to describe this journey, but I soon realized that I couldn't  say anything fitting -- not even the simplest of words could truly describe what I had experienced.

How does one put a fitting adjective to describe a month spent with people, most of whom I barely knew prior to being accepted into Journey East, who became my closest friends by the end of the program? Or how to describe the exhilaration of being on stage performing for thousands of people and hearing cheers from the audience once I uttered the first word of my solo in a song? Meeting three English-speaking people on the Great Wall after hearing nothing but Chinese spoken by anyone except the members of our group, bonding with someone who you share few common interests with while having the barrier of language right in front of your face as you try to communicate with her otherwise, singing with the 35 best singers out of a population of 33 million people, or getting lost on a college campus where no one else spoke fluent English (or any English at all)? All of this in the midst of unfamiliar senses: new sights, unusual sounds, distinct tastes and smells that will never be forgotten. Is there a way to sum all of this into a few short words that would have to be repeated to the many people who think that a treasure like this experience can be unlocked by asking those three simple words: "How was it?"

It really doesn't do a justice to say that this adventure was great, amazing, awesome, incredible, or even "indescribable by words". Even that last placeholder phrase is just a placeholder; the only way anyone could grasp the magnitude of any part of this journey would be for him/her to go there and experience these events firsthand.”

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.”

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.”

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)

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.”

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.”

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.”