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Seeing the World Next Door

Photo: Washington middle school students as part of Your World Next Door

Your World Next Door students wearing traditional Japanese garb. (Photo courtesy of Your World Next Door)

Ethiopia. Japan. Brazil. Italy.

A handful of kids at Washington’s Paul Public Charter School have to be among the most well-travelled middle school students in the country.

Yet they’ve experienced these rich cultures without even crossing the District line.

Welcome to Your World Next Door, an organization founded by Paul sixth-grade social studies teacher Chris Magnuson, CAS/BA ’97, that opens middle schoolers’ eyes to the wonders of travel through “Saturday Abroad” programs staged in the nation’s capital.

By immersing his students in one of the city’s ethnic communities for a day, Magnuson hopes he’s providing them with a lifetime of wanderlust. Students eat traditional food, play music, create art, learn dance, and meet natives from the featured country.

“We’re laying the groundwork for long-term change, and that comes from broadening perspective outside your own particular community,” said Magnuson, whose organization is a candidate for a September Pepsi Refresh Project grant. “We’re getting inner city communities connected to the world. Imagine how much I can change as a person because of that.”

Magnuson doesn’t have to. It was a high school study abroad program in France that he credits for helping him mature. At AU, he spent a semester in Cameroon, and he firmly believes that studying abroad creates a more well rounded, intellectually curious individual.

“Especially when you go in high school, you’re more on your own,” he said. “You are immersed with a family, going to the local high school. My push here is to get students to study abroad in high school so when they’re ready to go to college, they’re speaking another language, they’ve got that maturity level—which also bodes well for college admissions.”

Magnusson has funded the outings through a $3,000 grant from the Humanities Council of Washington and in-kind donations. Landing a spot on the September Pepsi Refresh Project could prove to be a big boon. Anyone can vote once per day for one of 400 nonprofits vying for a $250,000 grant from the soda company.

Aside from a small amount for food, the trips don’t cost the students anything. More than half of Paul’s students are on free or reduced lunch.

It’s the food, Magnusson said, that students are most weary of at first. But after shopping at a Japanese market, exploring sushi, drinking an Italian aperitif, and munching on Ethiopian bread, their pallets are expanding.

“These are things they’ve never seen before,” said Beth Mora, CAS/MA ’10, who volunteers with Your World Next Door. “It’s fascinating to them, and they’re very interested in learning more than what the traditional classroom can offer. They’re going into record stores they never knew were there, they’re eating food they’ve never seen before. And it’s right here at their fingertips, so they say, ‘Wow, I can take this back to my mom and dad, to grandma.’”

During an Italian Saturday they visited a Washington glass blowing studio, the Italian Embassy, and of course ate pasta. The Japanese trip, set up by AU’s Heidi Ashton Yoon and held at the School of International Service, included lessons on origami, using chopsticks, and meetings with Japanese students studying at AU.

“We’re living in a global world,” Magnusson said. “If we’re not taking steps out of our comfort zones as a nation, we have lost so many opportunities.”