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.

Joel Eisenkramer


JE 2004

University of California at Santa Cruz


Joel Eisenkramer“It would be my pleasure. I would say nearly all of my work and life have been related to Journey East since that highly influential first trip out of the country. I studied World Literature in college and participated in a 6-month education abroad program through the University of California in 2007. During that time I lived in Delhi and took classes in Indian literature at Delhi University. I wrote my final paper on the nationalist writer Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's re-conception of Hindu spirituality for a colonial and post-colonial India.

I also began studying Indian Classical music with Dr. Ranjan Kumar, a doctorate of music and Indian slide guitar performer from Delhi University. I made many close friendships over the course of the trip, including a tight bond with my music teacher and his wife. I have since been back to Delhi twice (in November 2009 and this past February) to stay with Dr. Ranjan and his wife, Sangita for one month each time. During these visits I reconnected with my friends (mostly musicians) and continued my study of Indian Classical music. During this most recent trip, I volunteered at the K - 12 private school where my teacher works.

The school is the Delhi Public School at Sonepat (public schools in India are what we would call private schools here in the USA as opposed to government schools). Here I taught a group guitar class and helped to organize the western music ensemble's competition pieces.”

Carol Bailey

(Parent and chaperone)

South Wardsboro

JE 2007 and 2008

Hi Tom,

Carol BaileyYou ask the impossible.  In a few short paragraphs, I cannot begin to describe the impact the Journey East program has had on our family.  But here goes:

"Entering Junior High, we considered our two girls fairly worldly.  Through our work, and their membership in Girl Scouts, they had interactions with numerous international students. Not only had we taken the girls to a dozen different states, but they had also been to Europe (Romania, England) and the Caribbean (Jamaica). But their involvement with JE raised that bar dramatically. The program provided cultural immersion that is not possible when you merely vacation somewhere.

JE fostered the girls’ independence, creativity and self-sufficiency.  Thinking outside the box, working under pressure, often with time constraints, and finding creative solutions became daily necessities. The entire semester was an intensive lesson in meeting the program's high expectations. No other single program has had as positive an impact on the girls’ development, both academically and personally, as Journey East.

Today, the girls recognize opportunities and are willing to 'put themselves out there' in order to succeed. They meet new situations with confidence and exude a sense of competence and self-esteem not always found in young women. Not to mention Audrey’s near fluency in Chinese! Our family's involvement in Journey East, and the opportunities it presented, have enriched all of our lives immeasurably."

Carrie Attley


JE 2005

Goddard College

Carrie Atley“Thanks to Journey East Program, I was able to find a voice, a sense of belonging, and grow tremendously at a young age. The program itself fostered a sense of camaraderie and community in addition to a strong sense of curiosity. The experience was transformative and proved a tremendous opportunity to increase cultural awareness. Journey East facilitated creative expression, promoted group collaboration, and provided me with great motivation to understand this great big world of ours. It was a great chance to expand my comfort zone, increase confidence, and work on developing my cultural sensitivity and conscientiousness. Though my experience with Journey East was over ten years ago, it still holds a large space in my heart and remains a defining experience in my life. It certainly played a large part in helping me develop into the person I am today and I am truly grateful to those who were able to make it happen.”

Julia DeWalt

JE 2000 and 2002

American University Graduate


Julia Dewalt“Like many of the students who have participated in Journey East over the years, it provided me with many a first. It was my first overseas flight, my first group travel experience,  my first exposure to a new culture and a new kind of collaborative learning experience. I had no idea what to expect but knew I was in the safe and capable hand of two of my most trusted teachers and that we were doing something new, and I was excited to be a part of that. I had never imagined going to China but I knew that this was a rare opportunity that I had to take advantage of. The value of experiencing different cultures was instilled in me from a young age and I knew I had to take every chance I could to experience what existed outside of rural VT.

As it turned out, Journey East 1 became the springboard for my interest in travel and over the rest of my time at Leland and Gray I was lucky enough to have other cultural exchange opportunities, including the second Journey East class in 2002. It ultimately led to my decision to attend The American University to study International Development and continue to travel and learn from people all over the world. It is easy to point to my experiences in China as a root cause for a love of travel; however, I think JE provided me with an additional strength, one a little more discreet.

As I look at what I am doing now, it is not what I would have guessed when I was a 15 year old freshman returning from my first trip halfway around the world. I am not in the foreign service, I am not living and working abroad, I am not in Washington, DC anymore. But what I do now is a very real reflection of some of the lessons I learned through my experiences with JE. The time we spent with students as a part of this Sino-American exchange taught me the importance of collaboration and the possibility of finding a connection with someone with vastly different experiences. Realizing that communicating with someone who does not speak your language is possible made me realize how strong the human connection is, and I use that in my work every day. JE reinforced the importance of thinking creatively and not letting assumptions create barriers to understanding. As we worked collaboratively to create a shared experience that transcended language, we strengthen our ability to relate to anyone, anywhere. I don’t think I truly appreciated that at the time but looking back on both my JE experiences, I can clearly see that my interest in finding a surprising shared connection with others was piqued. We cannot be limited by our comfort zones and must challenge the assumptions that we make as individuals and as a society. Giving high school students this opportunity, especially in a place like rural VT is invaluable. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity and proud to have  been a part of something that has given so many students these big first experiences. I don’t think about it every day, but I know that my experiences through Journey East are at the core of who I am as a counselor, colleague, student and global citizen.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.)

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.”

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.”