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.

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!”

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.”

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.”

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.



Devin Connor


JE 2000 and 2002

College of the Atlantic


Devin ConnorOne of the more significant things that Journey East did for me was to catalyze the development of an ability to communicate with a diverse range of people. In collaborating with individuals of extremely different backgrounds both at home and abroad something about the normality of that time in life was broken. The social norms of the recent past seemed absurd in this new and greater context where I had cause to interact not only with a greater range of 'types' of people but would also see and feel a greater range of human emotion and expression of it. This would prove to be both cathartic and painful as re‐entry into normal life was always on the horizon and we would all be forced to reconcile the differences between who we had become and where we were returning to as the program itself became the recent past. In any case, despite the inevitable pain and pleasure derived from it, the forced suspension of normality at a time in my life when normal was so simply defined was a crucial first step in developing dynamic communication skills that served in the remainder of my education and have been indispensable in my professional work ever since.

Zoe Soule


JE 2012

University of Vermont

“This summer as I ran through the Boston airport, I remembered something that was told to me on my last day in China. My group sat gloomily upon our carry-ons, about to board our fourteen hour flight back across the globe, when we were simply told “for the rest of your life, you will be able to navigate an airport”. At the time, it didn’t seem too relevant. I was dirty, exhausted, and at the end of a whirlwind experience within a culture far different from my own. But as I sprinted past gates, all the hours of doing just that, my saxophone case thunking against my leg as we caught our next flight across the Mongolian desert, it felt entirely true. I made the flight, I correctly (if quickly) navigated an airport, and I never once doubted that my experience with Journey East was the reason I could.

It is easy to jump directly into the exciting bits when I think of everything that I experienced in China. How many people can brag that they’ve climbed sand dunes in the Gobi Desert? Performed in front of hundreds in a gold lamé dress? Created an original show and traveled performing it? Not many. But it is the small experiences linked between that secretly impressed upon me, from watching miles of coal plants flash by the bus windows, to laughing with students as I mangled the Mongolian words they pronounced for me. By participating in Journey East, I was afforded a world view that wasn’t limited to the tourist checklist. I saw China, from the carefully guarded Tiananmen Square, to the woman offering me pineapple on a stick with a toothless smile.

As an experience, Journey East expanded my horizons, tested my skills as a performer, and deepened my certainty that I wanted to travel the world. But it also gave me the skills to do so. I know how to angrily barter for my silk scarves, how to communicate using my body language, rather than picking through a translation dictionary. I know how to pack everything I could possibly need into a carry-on. I know that side streets and hidden restaurants hold the best treasures. I know that I have the courage and knowledge to succeed abroad. And yes, I know that wherever I go, I will be able to navigate the airport.”

Katie Barnum


JE 2007

Mt. Holyoke

(Currently teaching English in Istanbul,  Turkey)    

Katie Barnum“Participating in the Journey East program will infect you with the travel bug.”  I heard this many times as I applied to Journey East.  Unsure of the exact meaning of these repeated words as they sifted through the air, I submitted my essays and applications anyway.  

Upon acceptance, I came to discover that the Journey East program was unlike any other.  It was one that provided experiences of a lifetime, one that I frequently revisit, through memory, photographs and friendship.  I still connect with the friends that I made in Inner Mongolia (in fact I showed a video of one of my Inner Mongolian friends dancing to my elementary students, illustrating the beauty of art through culture).  I still connect with friends that I roomed with from neighboring Vermont schools, friends whom I wouldn't have met otherwise.  I feel forever connected to my teachers, peers and our international collaborators, as we shared moments that could only have been lived with them through Journey East.  I often revisit the memories and photos from our performances, our adventures through temples and across the Gobi Desert (a bottle of sand from which still sits in my bedroom, nearly 10 years later).

As I travel and meet people who have spent their entire lives internationally, I am realizing how unique my opportunity to travel abroad to China and Inner Mongolia through the Journey East program was.  It was one that opened my eyes to true “cultural awareness.”  The program brought us together through dance, cultural exchange and exploration.  It took me outside of the small world that I knew (one that extended as far as the great Burlington, Vermont and back again).  Journey East showed me a way of living that I had never known.  It took me to a place that I was extremely fortunate to have known and truly changed my life in many ways, all of which for the better.

Now, as I reside in my home abroad, where traveling across borders is a simple weekend trip, I feel as though I have come to understand the true meaning of “being infected by the travel bug.”  Thank you Journey East for “infecting me” and for showing me the beauty of our big, wide world.”

Erik Johansson


JE 2012

Erik Johansson“When I came back it seemed like nothing here had changed. But I certainly changed.  And there are things that have a new meaning now and situations that I will look at differently now that I have been through this program.  … Anything about the rise of China in general has a whole new meaning after seeing hundreds of building cranes everywhere we went, building apartments for people who didn’t need them yet, and driving on ten lane highways waiting for cars and busses and trucks to fill them up, like they already have in Hohhot (Inner Mongolia).”

“There are just so many new connections to make that it feels as though nothing here changed, it all changed so much because of how much more I have to relate it to.”

Farrin Sofield


JE 2004

Evergreen State College, WA

Farrin Sofield“I would say the best thing JE taught me that the world is much larger than myself.  High school was hard, and it was too easy to navel gaze.  Journey East gave me the not only the chance to travel to China but the chance to get out of my own head.  Away from school, away from my regular life I was treated differently.  I was treated like an adult.  It came also at a perfect time for me, at an age where it's so important to know that high school, and all the insecurities that come with it, won't last forever.  It gave me confidence.  I've gotten older, I've traveled farther, but I'll never really forget that first trip.  It was the start of me growing up”

Louise McDevitt

(Parent and chaperone)


May 8, 2013

Louise McDevit“The reputation of the Journey East program was well known to our family before our two daughters, Kate and Devan entered Leland and Gray High School from a school system which had School Choice.  In fact it helped us choose Leland and Gray from a multitude of private and public schools.  The concept of an ongoing international experiential educational program, which developed passion for learning, made it a logical choice.  The allure of the program held true and the life lessons learned included personal growth, attainment of self-reliance, thirst for knowledge and the old fashioned extremely “hard work”. In addition to watching my children’s growth, I witnessed so many positive experiences of their peers, their parents and community members as they all became involved in the Journey East team.

Our family was fortunate to host ten Inner Mongolian college students and their professors over seven years. We feel that during that time we developed deep, comfortable, respectful and meaningful relationships despite the language barriers. In addition to learning about Asian culture and history we all became very adept at Chinese charades!  In addition, we have met our “family” members multiple times and hope to see them again.

I was a chaperone for 4 weeks and every day was an educational experience.  Did you know that there are sixteen year- old students who have never been on an airplane? Yet, by the time they return from traveling all over China they develop such intense life experiences that they now believe that someday they will navigate a plane. When I traveled with the 25 students, they worked as a team and performed in front of thousands of admiring citizens of different provinces.  I will never forget the beaming smiles and the pride they took in their individual or group performances.  Their personal interests yielded relevant and meaningful capstone final projects.  From a fiscal point of view the results are immeasurable since we are don’t typically measure ownership, engagement and an ongoing interest in learning.

How fortunate are these individual students who in a matter of months are exposed to a completely unknown culture, bridge the gap of diverse socio-economic groups, learn to integrate with other peers, develop artistic and academic programs, create final projects, travel in depth throughout China and will never forget their personal view of China?  For me it was invaluable.”