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Envoys: Facilitating Global Learning

Envoys - L-r: Marina Lee, Seth Leighton, and Luis Enrique Garcia

Envoys – an organization that provides innovative global learning experiences – is more than a chance for students to study abroad. It’s a chance for middle and high school students to develop their learning through preparatory courses on specific subjects, and then deepen their knowledge through a focused international experience.

“Envoys is transforming how schools, families, and students think about educational travel,” says co-founder Luis Enrique Garcia, Ed.M.’07.

Since 2010, the company founded by Garcia; Marina Lee, Ed.M.’07, and Seth Leighton, Ed.M.’07; has brought students around the world using its blended model of online courses, international travel, and rigorous assessments.

“There is a rising interest in global competency and 21st- century skills,” Garcia says, noting that Envoys expands on these areas by providing students with a real-life opportunity to not only learn deeply about countries but also visit firsthand.

It all began many years ago at the Ed School when Garcia, Leighton, and Lee met as students. “I don’t think we’d have Envoys if we didn’t have the Graduate School of Education,” Leighton says.

Leighton and Lee studied together under the Special Studies Program, and Garcia was enrolled in the International Education Policy Program. They became friends in part because  of their common interests in traveling and world issues.

“There was something about each other that we immediately respected and admired,” Lee says. Once they graduated HGSE in 2007 their lives went in different directions. Lee went to South Korea and founded a consulting program that became the subject of a HGSE case study on educational entrepreneurship. Leighton undertook a U.S. State Department fellowship, training university instructors in Gondar, Ethiopia. Garcia went to Colombia where he expanded the educational travel company, Off Bound Adventures.

Yet, even as their professional lives brought them farther away from each other, they stayed in touch. As their personal lives changed, their interest in and conversations about what initially connected them – cultural awareness, cultural empathy, and academic intelligence – did not. The three spoke regularly about these issues, recognizing the need to develop a new paradigm for developing global competency.

“A common issue for the schools we worked in and spoke with was that the opportunities they were able to offer for students to travel abroad didn’t have the same deep focus on learning as the rest of the curriculum,” says Leighton. The three then set out to build a program where students could truly engage with the world and learn in multiple ways.

“We wanted to ensure that Envoys’ experiential programs had the same intentionality, curriculum, and assessment that was so critical to a quality school,” Leighton says, pointing out that education outside of the classroom can be far more than the cliché of a field trip.

The need to bring together cultural competency training, empathy development, and academic research resulted in the creation of Envoys. Through the four domains of enriched learning, environmental awareness, positive youth development, and socio-cultural awareness, Envoys offers young students a unique opportunity for global learning. The organization partners with middle and high schools in the United States, Latin America, and Asia tailoring each program to suit to the school’s needs.

“The timeline for youth to become engaged in the larger world has shifted,” Leighton says. “The opportunities — and the need — for cross-cultural collaboration arise earlier and earlier with each generation. We can’t afford to wait, or assume that these skills will ‘just happen.’”

Students spend four to six weeks taking online courses with the intent to study in one of the 14 countries where Envoys travels. Each location allows students a chance to delve deeply into issues tied to the region. For example, a trip to study in the Galapagos Islands offers an opportunity to study economic development and conservationism, or the dynamics of environmental ecosystems, or the concept of world heritage.

Having recently signed an agreement to partner with the Grassroots Business Fund, a social impact investment fund that assists small businesses at the base of the economic pyramid around the world, Envoys will be able to extend the reach of programs to help bring greater benefits to the small, family-owned vendors throughout the developing world.

For the Envoys founders, getting students engaged in international opportunities while they are young means a future where youth don’t exacerbate global problems, but help solve them.

“It’s important for us to model the global citizenship we wish to imbue in our students,” Leighton says. “There is a real threat of global travel reinforcing neocolonial paradigms, where a superior culture deigns to provide gifts to the developing world. Instead, we seek to have students recognize the complexity behind these global problems. Appreciating the opportunities we have is important, but it is equally important that we appreciate the responsibility we have to each other, and the common humanity that allows us to work and grow together.”