The rumblings for a journey south began years ago over dumplings in the East Village of New York City. In the heart of a bleary northeast winter, my partner and I were itching for a disruption, a challenge, and a chance to expand. We asked ourselves - if you could be doing anything in the world right now, what would it be?
Almost a decade ago, I was asked a very similar question by the Bezos Scholars Program. I was a 17-year-old sitting around a table of incredible peers, wondering what my place was among that group. We were asked to start a ripple, somewhere, in some way in the direction of something we cared for deeply.
Back then, I felt something strong building inside of me - a grounding, chaotic mixture of freedom, fearlessness, and determination. I had long been committed to issues affecting women and girls around the world and education so when I returned home, I assembled a team of amazing people to create our Local Ideas Festival, “Women and Girls: Then and There, Here and Now.” I learned something or was forced to try something new almost every day that year - marking a period of personal growth I will forever cherish. Thankfully, this experience was not a finite one - the courage planted in me during that time has continued to expand and given me the confidence to always look inward as I look ahead.
Now, as I looked ahead, searching for that direction again, we landed on an idea to drive from the US to the bottom of South America. The first step was to tell everyone we knew we were going to do it - even though we didn’t have a single thing figured out.
I am a Type-A, planner - this trip seemed to distinctly call for a person of the opposite leaning, but the seed was planted deep. We worked slowly and arduously at making it happen - starting with the emotional storm swirling with questions of our sanity and safety. We found a 90s era van in Texas (complete with a VHS player) and found ourselves packing up our 300 square foot studio and driving to Colorado to convert our beautiful green machine into a home on wheels.
And then one day, after literally years of planning, we were driving south - but not alone.
From the beginning we endeavored to make this journey bigger than ourselves - we wanted to share our discoveries and curiosities with others. From this The Great Untold EDU was born - an educational program that makes global learning more interactive, personal, and in real-time. Our explorers - first and second graders spread across the US - worked on our base curriculum throughout the expedition, were sent new lessons from the road, and had video calls with us to answer their burning questions. The program centers on our belief that the mode of travel does not matter. You can travel to far away places in your classroom, in a good book, or you can visit. What’s important is sparking a curiosity about the different types of people, places, and cultures that exist and exploring how we are all connected. We did our best to help them learn in a unique and highly personal way, to break down walls and allow them to see the world beyond their own as an approachable place. They in turn - through their questions and eagerness - unlocked in us a new wonder for this world.
One of the greatest lessons we tried to impart is that getting to any proverbial goal line requires you to take that first, terrifying step. It also takes being willing to change the “plan” - to iterate and be adaptable. We had to work out the logistics of lugging a 10,000 pound hunk of metal across two ocean crossings and 15 countries; we visited the hospital 10 times (including visits for a donkey bite that led to a months long rabies scare); and our van broke down in the middle of the Atacama Desert which we had to hitchhike our way out of with a llama farmer and his wife. With each of these roadblocks, we were forced to move in a different direction.
20,000 miles, five tow trucks, and 427 days later, we arrived at the end of our road and handed the keys to new travelers. Our big green monster is now living a second life fulfilling different dreams. I am a grab bag of emotions, but sad isn’t one of them. There are new adventures to be had and I will never lose this moment in my life. I will remain in awe of all that it took to get here - the heavy tax of personal will and the generosity of the world combined. This leap was the privilege of a lifetime, and I am still brimming with gratitude.
Thankfully the reintegration into “normal life” has felt pretty seamless. Being near loved ones and sleeping in the same bed every night has been good.
Now that I am back, I am focused on and excited to be building our educational program The Great Untold EDU. We are working with world renowned educators to make the program even better, setting our sights on what part two might look like, and diving into how to make it possible. Our goals for the future are to expand our base curriculum, bring the program to as many students as possible, and start plans to explore a different part of the world.
I have a lot of wheels spinning in my life right now, down a path that feels both entirely new and yet familiar. I find myself again, taking many new steps into the unknown. There will almost certainly be times in your life where the goal line is unclear, the stakes high, and the uncertainty and doubt blinding. But all things start with one small move - writing the first word, sending the first email, taking the first step, driving the first mile. Inertia is a powerful thing - and I hope that we may all be courageous enough to move.
If you or someone you know might be interested in The Great Untold EDU, reach out to Valerie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. Anything this big and ambiguous is a lot to take on mentally and financially. But I have some advice! The biggest of which is to start small in every way. It’s overwhelming and unattainable to put on your to-do list “Plan trip to South America in Van.” You have to break it down and try to do at least one thing - big or small - working towards your goal every day.
Finance-wise, this first adventure was fully self-funded - almost immediately after we first thought of the dream, we moved into 300 square foot studio in New York in a location where we both could bike to work and did other things to save all that we could for YEARS. We also started with all of the low-lift, no-cost things like setting up a WordPress site, reaching out to all the educators we knew, and making rough plans. This self-funded style of dream-chasing is not sustainable, but it allowed us to build a base of followers, interested educators/communities, and credibility as we move into phase two.
For our next adventure we are looking to expand our horizons. Now that our program has legs, I am currently taking a grant writing class to help fund the program’s growth, we have begun a small speaker series, and are looking for strategic partners to grow the program in a sustainable and scalable way.