n a red-eye flight in mid-July, I’m seated with a group of 17 Detroit high school students. Robert Nettles, a student from Osborn College Preparatory Academy, looks nervous. “Are we in the air yet?” he asks. We’re still on the tarmac. I tell him he’ll know it when we take off.
This is the first time in an airplane for most of the students, and they have a 28-hour journey ahead of them. Our final stop is Lilongwe, Malawi, the capital of the southeastern African country.
The students have spent four months preparing for the trip as participants of buildOn, an international nonprofit organization that engages youth in service learning. We work in six U.S. cities, including Detroit. As part of a mission to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations, buildOn also constructs schools in underdeveloped countries as part of its “Trek for Knowledge” program.
During this Trek, the students and I, along with other buildOn staff, spend 10 days living with host families in Mpeni, a small village in the Malawian countryside with no electricity or plumbing. The students sleep on thin mats beneath straw-thatched roofs, play soccer and games like Jenga with village children, and eat nsima (a corn-based local staple) with their host families.
Most importantly, however, they work side by side with community members to help construct a new primary school for the village.
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