Michael Conn is a social studies teacher at Milton Area High School in Milton, Pennsylvania. He’s been traveling with students since 1975 and is passionate about the power of instilling a sense of global citizenship in his students via travel. Ten years ago, while visiting Cambodia on an ACIS Global Conference, his experience inspired him to help build a school in a rural Cambodian village and support the school community on an ongoing basis.
We interviewed Michael about his experience traveling over the years with ACIS as well as his work with his Team Cambodia project:
How long have you been traveling with students?
My first student trip abroad (also my first time abroad) was in December 1975 when I planned every detail and made all the arrangements (without a computer) and escorted 40 high school students from Memphis, TN to the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland on a 15 day trip. Total student cost was $840. We did not stay in 3 and 4-star hotels; in fact, some of the hotels resembled Turkish prisons with no restaurants and community restrooms and showers on every other floor. There were no lifts and the heat was turned off at 10:00 p.m. The students never complained as this was a grand adventure in their young lives.
What inspired you to lead your first trip?
Even as a young teacher I understood that we are part of the global community and I believed the best way to bridge the gulf between the rest of the world and us was to introduce teenagers to other cultures literally rather in a textbook. All of my travel experiences up until that time were captured through my love of reading. I knew I had to explore other parts of the world and I knew how critical it was to share my passion with my students.
Where have you gone with students over the years and what have some of your favorite destinations been?
I have taken student trips to England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales France Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Brazil, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, most of the destinations multiple times. My favorite destinations are anywhere I am, but I have a special affinity for Cambodia, London, and Italy.
Has it been a challenge for students in your community to overcome financial barriers and gain access to student trips abroad?
The community where I teach is a high poverty area with a large portion of our students receiving free or reduced lunches. Many parents have lost their jobs in recent years; so, yes, foreign travel is a serious hardship for my students’ families. Typically, I announce trips 1 1/2 to 2 years in advance, and extended families come together to help students travel abroad. Almost all of my students have part-time jobs to help pay for their trips.
On my recent trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, a number of the students raised all the money to pay for their trip. One of these students was participating on her 4th consecutive trip with me, another on her 3rd, and yet another, on her 2nd trip. This has been possible because the parents trust me and my travel experience, but, perhaps most importantly, the trust, professionalism, and efficiency of ACIS. To say I am an ambassador for ACIS is an understatement. I sing the praises of ACIS to people around the world. I have traveled with students for 42 years and have successfully escorted more than 2000 of my students to destinations around the world. These travel experiences have been the cornerstone of my teaching career.
Tell us about the project in Cambodia. How did you first get involved in their community and how did you come to help build and support a school there?
Ten years ago my daughter and I participated in a Global Teachers Conference in Vietnam. Thailand, and Cambodia. It was our first visit to Southeast Asia and we fell in love with the region. But what we saw in Cambodia transformed us. The level of poverty was overwhelming. I grew up in in a very poor family in the inner city of Memphis, Tennessee, and compared to the conditions we witnessed in Cambodia, we lived like royalty. It was heartbreaking to see the absence of dental and medical care for the children, and most of them did not have a school to attend. I knew the modern history of this war torn country, and when I returned home to begin a new year, I approached my students about reaching out to help the beautiful children of Cambodia. They were all excited to help and they commissioned me to find a way to help them.
I discovered an organization named World Assistance for Cambodia, headed by Bernie Krisher, an elderly man who covered the Vietnam War for Newsweek where he fell in love with the people of Cambodia. He has remained in Asia since that time and has dedicated his life to helping Cambodians. Bernie was a Nazi concentration camp survivor who has a deep compassion for innocent victims of genocide. His organization has a rural school program that we decided to utilize to build a middle school in rural Cambodia. Initially, we raised $35,000 that was matched twice, once by the World Bank and then by a benevolent organization in Japan.
My students and our community were amazing with their passion for this important project. We were the first public school district to build a school in Cambodia, and because of the dedication and publicity our project received, a number of other public school districts have built schools there since we did. I was so impressed, and not surprised when ACIS also built a school there. It was such a typical act of global outreach by ACIS. I am a huge admirer of Peter Jones as he has been incredibly helpful in our efforts in Cambodia.
How has the project evolved over the years in which you’ve been involved with it?
Since 2008 when we started the project, the student population in the Cambodian school has grown from 160 to 230 students. Since the beginning, there has been an ever increasing need for additional resources, including adding an additional classroom and providing a computer lab. With each passing year, it becomes increasingly difficult to provide for their growing need, as our community has lagged behind in any real growth in the economy. A shortage of jobs is still very much an issue here. The community rallied behind the initial project but has been more reluctant to continue to support it. Only three of the 10 computers we bought for the school eight years ago continue to work. This year we need to buy ten new computers to ensure that their computer lab is viable. Each computer is $550 which means we need to raise $5500 for the computers alone. We have to raise $4500 each year to pay the salary of the English/computer teacher or the school will lose that most important resource. We also pay for their internet connection and the internet is their only window to the world. Right now we have less than $300 in our Team Cambodia account; so we will be very busy this school year.
How have you encouraged your students to get involved with the project in Cambodia and what impact has their involvement had on their community in PA?
We’ve had a number of middle school and high school assemblies during the past nine years where I have shown them images from Cambodia, and in particular, the Milton School in Cambodia. In those assemblies, students who have visited the school in Cambodia share their experiences with the student body. I have also utilized current Team Cambodia members to recruit sincere new members. The local newspaper, Milton Standard-Journal, has been highly instrumental in keeping our project in the public eye by publishing several project related stories each year, but unfortunately with descending monetary impact. From the very beginning of the project, it was clear to me that this would be an ongoing project, not one and done. That concept has been embraced by a small but committed group of students, but understandably not so much by the community. They helped us build the school, but most in the community seem to think it is time to move on to a different project. If they could all visit Cambodia and see for themselves the level of poverty and see the impact the school we built is having
From the very beginning of the project, it was clear to me that this would be an ongoing project, not one and done. That concept has been embraced by a small but committed group of students, but understandably not so much by the community. They helped us build the school, but most in the community seem to think it is time to move on to a different project. If they could all visit Cambodia and see for themselves the level of poverty and see the impact the school we built is having on a remote village in rural Cambodia, they would better understand my passion for helping these deserving children obtain a quality education. This school may well be their only opportunity for a brighter future.
At this moment there are approximately twenty dedicated students in Team Cambodia. This project has helped provide a global perspective in our community. It has empowered young people to understand that one person can have an enormous impact on people half way around the world. That is a critically important concept to practice in rural Pennsylvania. Most of my students have never been to New York City or Philadelphia, both only three hours away, but they know they are impacting the lives of children 10,000 miles away. That is important, both in Cambodia and in Milton, Pennsylvania.
What lesson or lessons do you draw from your experience in Cambodia or any of the other places you’ve traveled over the years with students that you’d like to share?
Numerous lessons can be drawn from the Cambodia experience especially that young people are generous and compassionate, and many of them are not the self-absorbed and selfish people they are made out to be by the media. I have watched them endure rain, snow, heat, and cold, and absorb insults for helping children in a former communist country who we were at war with half a century ago. The students never complain and continue to dedicate themselves to this important project. Three times I have taken Team Cambodia members to visit the school in Cambodia they work so hard to support, and each time the students return home as transformed human beings. Almost all of them call the trip to Cambodia the most important event in their lives.
Every destination I have shared with my students since 1975 has enriched all of our lives. I tell my students we are travelers, not tourists, and I have watched as they have been empowered by their foreign travel experiences. With every trip, I revel in the looks of wonder in their eyes as they finally get out of textbooks and into this amazing world we share. That travel changes lives is an understatement; it revolutionizes young lives. As I near the end of my teaching career and reflect on the past 46 years, I would like to think I have had a positive impact on my students’ lives, but there is no doubt that foreign travel has impacted those young lives. Some of the students who traveled with me in the early years are in their 60’s now, and I still hear from some of them. They always want to talk about our shared travel adventures.
I will be forever grateful to Peter Jones and the entire ACIS staff for making it possible for me to share my passion for foreign travel with my students throughout the years. I ask every group leader who does not travel with ACIS why not. Yes, I tell them ACIS is a little more expensive, but the quality and the peace of mind that you always produce are more than worth the extra cost.
Anything else you’d like to add?
If any ACIS patrons would like to make a tax deductible donation to help support the Milton School in Cambodia, pleases make checks payable to: Team Cambodia, c/o Mike Conn, Milton High School, 700 Mahoning Street, Milton, PA 17847. The IRS Tax ID is 51-0350058.