Sequoyah to go on First International Trip in Over a Decade

8 min read

Sequoyah’s high school, in its second year, is sending tenth and eleventh graders on two ten-day trips to Costa Rica during Mod 7, the first international field studies trip in over a decade. Two years ago, a planned trip to Guatemala was cancelled due to emerging concerns regarding the Zika virus. Students have been split up into two separate trips, with all eleventh graders on the second trip. Tenth graders will be split between the trips according to Social Innovation Program teams.

The two trips will be nearly identical, according to RJ Sakai, Sequoyah’s high school Director of Social Innovation, who planned the trip with LeeMichael Krieger, K–12 Field Studies Specialist. Both trips will have at least three Spanish-speaking chaperones, one Spanish teacher in addition to Sakai and Krieger, and one Costa Rican guide. Trip One departs Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on May 2nd and returns on the 11th. Humanities teacher Ian Chang and Spanish teacher Marisol Perez will be joining Sakai and Krieger on Trip One. Trip Two departs from LAX on May 14th and returns May 23rd. Chaperones for Trip Two include math teacher Melinda Wilder and Spanish teacher Ilan Vaisman.

Costa Rica was partly chosen as the location for this year’s international trip because Alia Kate, former Director of Social Innovation, “had connections there … and established what a trip could look like,” said Sakai. Kate said she gave Sakai her connections to various people in Costa Rica “and he took it from there.” Sakai said another reason the Central American country was chosen is that “it’s an easy country to travel in.” Sakai said tourism is “such a big driver there” that “all of the infrastructure is there that makes it easy from the planning, risk-management, and safety perspectives.” Sakai also noted other reasons Costa Rica was chosen for the international trip, including the “biodiversity in flora and fauna, the government’s successes in achieving political stability, ability to practice Spanish, and applications of cooperative models of doing business.”

All 18 eleventh graders were put on the same trip because “they communicated that it was important that they stay together,” said Sakai. “It would be a meaningful for all 18 juniors to be on a trip together.” Eleventh grader Meg Mordecai said she is “happy to have all the 11th graders on one trip” and the scheduling “just makes sense” when considering “the SAT, ACT, [and] subject tests.” Sophomore Tor Lansing raised one objection to the class segregation, noting that “having all of the juniors on one trip is partially unfair towards many students who have built close relationships with those juniors … [and] many sophomores including myself look up to the junior class for advice on topics in and out of school.” Lansing believes this decision to be against Sequoyah’s “message of creating a diverse community.”

Mordecai said she is “super excited for the trip,” but added: “I’ve never been out of country or even out of state alone. I know there is a lot of crime in South America, I’ve seen it first hand, and I hope to feel safe on my visit [to Costa Rica].”

Students and faculty going on the trips will be flying on Alaska Airlines flight 272 with direct service from LAX to Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) in San José, Costa Rica. Departing flights for both trips are scheduled to leave LAX at 8:31 AM and land in San Jose at 3:24 PM, local time (two hours ahead of Los Angeles), making the estimated flight time five hours and 53 minutes.

Check-in area at Juan Santamaría International Airport (Eric T Gunther)

Sakai said students will be dropped off at LAX and trip chaperones will take over from there. Sakai added that the full drop-off procedure will be discussed at the March 26th prep meeting.

For students wondering about socializing on the six-hour flight, seating on flights is determined by Alaska Airlines. According to Sakai, trip organizers will determine the exact seats students will be assigned. “There will not be the chance to switch seats,” he said firmly.

Sakai said students will not be able to check any bags. “Students will be allowed one carry-on bag and one personal item.”

While Sakai was unsure how exactly students will go through security at airports, he left open the chance for students who are enrolled in a program like TSA PreCheck or Global Entry to take advantage of their status. However, since all students will not have a prescreened status, they would end up waiting for the others anyway.

Families have already sent photos or copies of their student’s passport to Sakai. During the trip, Sakai said Krieger will hold on to students’ passports, “except for when we pass through customs.” Students will be given a copy of their passports while on the trip.

The first two nights of both trips will be spent in Alajuela, Costa Rica, a suburb of Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, and roughly two miles from the San Jose airport. According to Sakai, “that day or two will be for cultural orientation,” which could include a scavenger hunt, learning about “cultural customs that are different or similar” to those in the US.

Sakai chose Alajuela because it is “smaller and more manageable” than San Jose, it is arranged in a grid, and “it will be easy for us to navigate in and arrange big group activities.”

Trip-goers will be staying at Hotel Mi Terra Casablanca, a hostel in Alajuela, where each bedroom has 2–5 beds. Sequoyah students and trip chaperones will “be the only ones there,” according to Sakai. Hostel room groups will be of students self-identifying as the same gender, “with student comfort being the priority,” said Sakai.

Two buses will be contracted to transport students and chaperones while on the trip.

On the third day of the trip, students and chaperones will drive to a homestay community in Cedral. Cedral, a community of 150–200 people, is a coffee-growing community that is about 20 minutes from a paved road. During the four-to-five hour drive to Cedral, Sakai is hoping to stop and have lunch on a beach. Kate said she chose for Sequoyah to go to Cedral when she, High School Director Marc Alongi, Head of School Josh Brody, and former Director of Field Studies Adelaide Nalley discussed the trip last year. Kate has led eight groups to Cedral in the past.

For the six nights students and chaperones will stay in Cedral, students will be grouped with one to three of their peers to stay with a family in their house. Groupings will be made based on creating a “safe [and] productive learning environment for students” and will be of students self-identifying as the same gender. Sakai said a variety of things could factor into homestay groupings, including “how students relate to each other socially, students’ level in Spanish,” or their interests and backgrounds. Faculty and chaperones will stay in backhouses. All homestays will be within one-half mile of each other.

The view from a guest bedroom at one of the Cedral homes (RJ Sakai / Sequoyah School)

In the mornings in Cedral, Sakai said different groups will be doing different activities, from hiking, to helping with construction projects in the community, to tending to the coffee farm and animals. Kate said that construction projects groups had done previously in Cedral included “learning how to mix cement by hand, building log cabins from the foundations to the siding, constructing African drying beds for coffee production, and completing town beautification projects.”

In the afternoons, Sakai said students will be learning about Cedral’s coffee production and how their business is structured.

African coffee-drying beds in Cedral (RJ Sakai / Sequoyah School)

As for food while in Cedral, Sakai said he hopes students will make some food on the trip, even though host families are responsible for making food. Sakai added, “cooking is a great opportunity to share and communicate.” Kate said “many of them are … cooking maestros and they’re so happy to share these skills with our students.”

Sakai noted that students will be required to talk in Spanish to their host families if they wish to communicate with them. Since students will be in groups at their homestays, they can rely on classmates if needed.

As for the safety of students in Cedral homestays, Kate reported that her previous groups “couldn’t have asked for more attentive, fun, and welcoming homestay families. They care deeply that students are well-fed, happy, and healthy.”

The closest emergency services to Cedral, which include urgent care and full hospitals, are in San Isidro, 40 minutes “down the hill,” according to Sakai. He added that Krieger is a “certified wilderness responder” and will be on both trips. Sakai noted that “all teachers are CPR certified as well.” Sequoyah has purchased travel insurance for all students going on the trip.

On the last night in Cedral, host families will throw a farewell party for students and chaperones to celebrate the six days they spend there.

The last night of the trip will be spent back in Alajuela to “do some debriefing activities and prepare for re-entry back into the US, both logistically and culturally,” said Sakai. “It can be a ‘big thing’ to come back after a week in a different country, so we’ll all help prepare each other for that.”

The returning flight for both trips is again on Alaska Airlines, flight 221. Flight 221 for the first trip departs SJO at 4:25 PM, local time, on May 11th and arrives in Los Angeles at 9:55 PM, making the flight an estimated six hours and 30 minutes. For Trip Two, flight 221 departs SJO at 4:10 PM, local time, on May 23rd and lands at LAX at 9:25 PM, making the flight 15 minutes shorter than for Trip One.

Similar to other Sequoyah field studies trips, students will not be allowed to bring cellular devices on this trip. “A tech policy will be given out at the informational meeting” on March 26th, said Sakai. “I do want to be open to the idea that devices can be a great way of sharing between cultures.” Because of that, Sakai said “having a non-phone device,” like an iPod touch or iPad, could be “a great way to make that happen.”

If families have an emergency and need to get in contact with their student or a trip chaperone, “they’ll get in contact with the school [in Pasadena] and the school will get in touch with me,” said Sakai.

Tenth-grade student Charlotte Walker said she is “both excited and nervous for the trip.” While Walker is “very excited” to be in a new country with her classmates, she is nervous about “being in another country without any communication to my family or friends for nine days.”

Lansing said he is “very excited” about going to Costa Rica and that the trip “is a huge learning opportunity for us sophomores and juniors.” While he hopes the trip “goes off without a hitch, … it would be a shame if people acted irresponsible while on the trip and ruin it for everyone else.”

While Costa Rica does not require any vaccinations to enter the country, the CDC recommends all travelers get vaccinated for malaria and get routine vaccines (such as the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, chickenpox vaccine, polio vaccine, and yearly flu shot). Other vaccinations are also recommended for some travelers. “Families should talk with their physicians or visit a travel clinic,” Sakai said.

While one trip is abroad, the other will be working on SIP (Social Innovation Program). For eleventh graders, that means working on their Impact Projects. Tenth graders will be working in their teams.

Tenth grade students will be required to go on an international trip every year, though not always to Costa Rica.

On October 5th, 2017, Sakai led a meeting at the K–8 introducing the trip to Costa Rica to about 30 parents of tenth and eleventh grade students. Sakai presented photos from his September scouting trip, outlined general details about both trips, and answered some parents’ questions about passports, cellular devices for students, how trip groups are made, and when students would learn about the trip.

Sakai talking about Cedral at the October 5th parent informational meeting. (Barefoot Times staff)

Families are required to attend the informational meeting on March 26th at 6:30 PM in the Infinity Room at the K–8 to learn more about specific details on the trip, including the “itinerary, packing lists, communication protocols, and more,” according to an email Sakai sent to tenth and eleventh grade students on March 13th.