SOMERS, N.Y. – There’s only so much that can be learned in a textbook.
That’s why high school teachers Desiree St. John, Paul Saia and Lisa Siano were devastated when the Somers Central School District, like many neighboring schools, ceased school-sponsored trips overseas last year.
Years ago, the foreign language department led a successful world travel program, which was canceled after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Though it was brought back by current Superintendent Dr. Raymond Blanch, who saw the value in studying abroad, the district ended the Somers Journeys program at the end of last year over liability concerns and political strife, Siano said.
“They said, ‘We’re going to stop the program. However, if you would like to continue it on your own, we would support you,’” Siano recalled.
Soon after, ROAM Overseas was born. St. John, Saia and Siano launched the nonprofit organization, which does no fundraising. The students and their families are required to fully fund their own trips, usually scheduled during winter recess in February.
“We were devastated that the program was ending,” said St. John, adding that she, Saia and Siano had a natural chemistry. “We had all been on trips together, we all had a similar philosophy, and we also trust each other in terms of the security of the students.”
Equally important, the organization led by the three teachers would take full responsibility for the trips.
“We’re putting ourselves on the line, taking the responsibility of taking these kids without the sponsorship of the school,” Siano said. “But, we just felt that as professionals, as teachers, this learning experience was something we couldn’t deny these kids.”
The name ROAM Overseas (not an acronym) at first appears obvious in meaning, but it also has a hidden meaning to the three teachers. The name is a nod to Italy and Siano’s affinity for the country. Siano, an Italian language teacher, is referred to as “Mamma Lisa” by many of her students.
“Every year I can do Italy,” Siano said jokingly.
Between the three teachers, they have chaperoned dozens of foreign trips, including to China, Ecuador, Greece, Italy (several times) and Spain. One of the philosophies of ROAM Overseas is to, “Enrich education by giving students the opportunity to learn new perspectives by creating authentic and meaningful experiences that will inspire a passion for world travel and citizenship.”
“They can taste the culture, they can smell the culture, they learn about the history first-hand, they can hear the language and interact with the natives themselves, rather than trying to re-create that in a classroom,” St. John said.
Traveling abroad also helps students understand that people in other countries are more like them than not, St. John said.
“No matter where you go, whether it’s China or Ecuador or Australia—there’s this common humanity amongst us, which I don’t think they would really get unless they traveled,” she said.
Once ROAM Overseas was founded, the teachers set about settling their first course of action: Where to travel to?
“[Australia] was the buzz that we really heard from the students,” St. John said. “We take these trips not because we want to go to Australia. We take these trips because we hear that’s where the students want to go next.”
Of course, the trips must be steeped in educational value (don’t even think about requesting Bermuda). Siano refers to them as “living classrooms.”
“I can show you a video of Carnevale, I can show you pictures of the Coliseum, I can tell you about Roman history,” Siano said, “but when you see the look on these kids’ faces when they enter the Coliseum and their mouths drop and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what I’ve studied,’ it’s a whole different world.”
Once the destination was chosen, the teachers needed to let kids know—and word spread quickly.
“It took a little bit to get known,” Saia said. “Once word got out that we were going, we had people from all over the place [applying]. It became known real fast.”
Nearly 60 students applied to go on the Australia trip, a few dozen more than the teachers could bring. The trip was capped at 37 students, with one adult for every six students.
“We felt that the larger groups, when you get to about 60, it becomes difficult to manage and it creates more of a tourist feel than it does a family feel,” said St. John, also citing safety concerns.
In Australia, the group traveled to Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef. A standout of the Sydney trip was a visit to the Rocks district, an area originally settled by convicts who had been banished there by England between 1788 and 1868.
“AP World students who had just learned about Australian history and given presentations on Australian history then went to Australia,” St. John said. “They were like, ‘Oh my, God. We’re in the Rocks district. This is where the criminals came in.’”
Saia praised the students and their behavior on the incident-free trip. In fact, students applying for ROAM Overseas must secure three character references to even be considered.
“We have to make sure they are upstanding citizens,” Saia said. “We’re not just taking anyone with us. You are taking somebody’s child thousands of miles away, and it’s hard to keep an eye on them 24/7. So, you have to have a certain amount of trust in the kids you’re taking.”
The students are also required to sign an agreement, which includes a code of conduct.
“If you don’t do what we expect you to do, we’ll put you on a plane and send you home at your parents’ expense,” Saia said. “The kids are so well-behaved. It has never been a problem. The kids are tremendous.”
The teachers have no doubt the 37 students who traveled to Australia returned with experiences that will shape their lives forever.
“I hear so many of them say, I’m going to study abroad now,” Siano said. “One time we climbed Vesuvius, a student turned to me and said, ‘I think I want to change my major to geography.’ It doesn’t get better than this.”
She has also noticed a change in many students’ personalities, with one student in particular going from “shy kid” to “Mr. Popularity.” High school cliques don’t exist during these “family” trips, she said.
“I don’t think there’s any kid that has come back that has not grown in some way from these trips,” Siano said.
With the aid of a travel company, ROAM Overseas started preparing for its 2018 trip well before landing in Australia. Much to Siano’s delight, the students and teacher will be traveling to Italy next February.
“We’re kind of hoping every other year to bring it back to Italy,” Siano said. “We’ll see where the kids want to go.”
The organization just recently announced its 2019 trip: South Africa.
Learn more at roamoverseas.com.