Jonathan Kaptcianos is a math teacher at Brunswick School in Greenwich, Connecticut. He recently returned from a trip to the Dominican Republic with his students that was designed around developing leadership skills in young men. His students experienced a mix of outdoor activities, service projects, and community engagement all with the aim of broadening their perspective and building their sense of global citizenship.
We interviewed Jonathan about how he and his colleagues at Brunswick School worked with ACIS to develop the program, and what impact the trip had on his students:
What originally inspired you to take your students on this leadership program?
In the last 3 years our school has begun exploring ways that we can incorporate character growth and leadership development into the overall experience for our boys. With the overarching concept titled “The Brunswick Trust,” we have started a handful of programs, curriculums, and events that expose our boys to the ideas of courage, honor, truth, outlook, adaptability, etc. Our trip to the DR was designed to be an extension of this idea; teaching leadership skills in a completely foreign setting.
How did you hope your students would be affected by the experience? What other goals did you have for the trip?
To answer this, it’s worth mentioning that my involvement prior to our departure to the DR started after the program had already been put together. Kate Duennebier, the head of The Brunswick Trust, designed the program with Julie Fratarcangeli from ACIS specifically with the hopes of the developing/bringing foreword the aforementioned skills.
Having said that, I was primarily hoping that the boys would just take ownership of their experiences in the DR, without the necessity of thinking “this is how I become a leader.” I wanted them to experience the culture and learn about a very different part of the world than they were accustomed. Simply stated, I wanted them to be active participants, and return to school with an excitement for what they did and saw.
What did you do in advance of the trip to prepare your students for the experience they were going to have?
We had our first informational meeting about this trip in October. A list of about 12 interested students narrowed down to 5 official participants by January. Aside from some administrative details on our end (Medical and disclosure forms, passport renewals, etc), there wasn’t a lot of regular contact between myself and the boys in the winter.
Following an informative (and slightly intimidating, in a good way!) conference call with Julie and Richard Weber, ACIS’ tour operator in the Dominican Republic, in February, I took on the task of really trying to prepare the boys for this experience. We met once a week for the next 5 weeks, going over the packing list, general itinerary, and travel in the DR, etc. In addition, I also assigned each of our boys a topic to research (based on the organizations/groups/locations we were set to visit on our trip); while the goal was for them to formally present to the rest of us prior to departure, they ended up just being the point-man for these specific portions of the trip, which still proved to be helpful/beneficial for their entire experience. Lastly, (per the recommendation of Richard) we prepped a few icebreaker/activities that we could go through with the groups that we would be meeting over the course of the week.
What were some of the highlights of the trip for you and your students?
I’m sure it would be cliche to say that the entire trip was one long highlight reel, so I’ve tried to summarize some of the most memorable/impactful moments for us below.
> Hiking Mt. Isabel de Torres — a few of our boys (myself included) had hiked mountains in the US, but this experience was far from what any of us had expected. While Richard told us that he had scoped out a “trail” a month before and left some markers, we were essentially making our own path to the Botanical Gardens at the top. The boys took complete ownership of this experience, and led us all from marker to marker, through the occasional spots of pringamosa, evidence of Ciguapa, an epic landslide, and the final 500 meter nearly vertical stretch to the summit. Our boys felt very accomplished once we got to the top.
> Day with the DREAM Project — Our boys were inspired by the wide range of outreach that DREAM has, ranging from basic schooling for younger children all the way to basic life lessons for young adults. Amidst learning about their projects, meeting the team, eating lunch together, and participating in an actual session with locals their age, our boys’ highlight from this day came at a seemingly simple moment. Specifically, after meeting the DREAM Trainers and doing an activity on defining ‘manhood’, or two main English-Spanish translators (Richard and Yunil) left to sort out the details of lunch. When they came back 20 minutes later, our boys and the DREAM leaders were in the middle of a very intimate/informative/open conversation about dating/school/family — this was an incredible moment for our boys, as they were able to relate and share stories, even with the language barrier between our two groups.
> Meeting Domingo Abreu and exploring the Pomier Caves — This was a powerful experience for our boys, learning firsthand about the ecological history and hardships that the DR has gone through dating back hundreds of years. In talking about the foreign industries that are currently mining for gold in the DR, Domingo asked us why the US (among other countries) feel the need to come and put basic resources at risk in search of these metals; this was an intense moment of reflection that our boys originally hadn’t expected.
How would you describe the on-the-ground experience in regards to the support and guidance you received from ACIS?
The guidance from Julie and Richard beforehand was great — being able to call/email with questions in the weeks leading up to our departure was very important, especially since this was a brand new experience for me as a Group Leader. Also, the aforementioned conference call that we had certainly set the tone of their expectations for our boys going into the trip.
Of course, a huge part of this experience for us was the unknowns going in; admittedly I wish I had been a little more prepared (as the faculty member/group leader), but our boys went in with an open mind and open to any of the challenges they were going to face.
What advice would you give to another educator evaluating a program like the one you went on?
This program was an incredible challenge for our boys: physically, emotionally, socially, culturally. However, it was an incredibly rewarding and memorable experience. If you are looking for a trip beyond the location and away from an academic curriculum, this is it. Our boys left the DR after 8 days being inspired by what they learned and what they saw, and incredibly anxious to share it with their families/friends/classmates, and (most importantly) continue in their own personal growth.
With regards to selecting participants and preparing for the trip, it’s important to have students that are willing to be active/engaged/put themselves out there for the entirety of the week. For us, all barriers were broken within the first 2 days, so there were very few issues of students being quiet/unwilling moving forward. Also, preparation and research about the places/organizations/culture of the DR goes a long way, in terms of just having a knowledge, and giving students the opportunity to take ownership of portions of the trip beforehand.
Anything else you’d like to add?
We are so excited for the potential growth of this program, both for our school and ACIS making it accessible for other institutions. Our boys are getting ready to present about their experience to the school next week and we can’t wait to begin preparing this trip for next year.
Interested in taking a group on a Youth Leadership Program in the Dominican Republic similar to the one Jonathan did with his group? Fill out the “I’m Interested” form on the itinerary page!