Bright Light Volunteers announced that it has been honored with the prestigious 2019 Top- Rated Award by Great Nonprofits for the third time in a row. GreatNonprofits, the leading provider of third party reviews for nonprofit organizations, created their Top-Rated Award as a sort of people’s choice award for nonprofits, where volunteers, donors, and people served cast their vote in the form of a review to express their appreciation and help their favorite nonprofits win a spot on this coveted list. Read more here:
Via a unique partnership between Bright Light Volunteers (BLV) and our educational partner Bethel University (BU), BLV’s innovative approach to cultural immersion and global citizenship cultivation is being utilized to impact the lives of rural, southern, Title I high school students. We have conclusively shown that our programs, particularly our programs that serve high school students from the rural south, are having profound effect in improving retention and college acceptance rates through cultural immersion, international study and service initiatives.
The global citizen is aware of the wider world, has a sense of their own role as a world leader, respects and values diversity, and participates in the community at a range of levels, from the local to the global (Oxfam, 2015). In our experience, global citizens and leaders are most successfully cultivated through high-quality, rigorous education coupled with sustainable-international service.
Historically, Title I students in the rural south have had limited access to global citizenship education and to the multiple intellectual and social benefits of participation. Therefore, a strategic alliance between Bright Light Volunteers, a global nonprofit organization, and Bethel University, a SACS accredited college of liberal arts, has been established to support the U.S. Department of Education’s Purpose for Title I schools, “improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged” by “closing the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.” (2004)
Through this partnership, 64 Title I, high school students have enrolled in a Global Service Learning and Citizenship (GSLC) course at Bethel University for transferable college credit. Upon completion of the course, they traveled to Cuba, Peru, and/or Costa Rica where they continued learning concepts and skills necessary to function in a world that is increasingly interconnected and multicultural. State-funded grants, such as the Tennessee Hope Scholarship, have helped fund tuition. Private scholarships and sliding scale program fees have helped fund travel expenses. The result is that rural, southern, Title I high school students are becoming first-generation college students and global citizens.
These Gen Z students, also known as digital natives, expect their education to include technology-driven course work. By designing and delivering an online course, using the Canvas LMS, students learn the history and culture of the host country as well as the importance of becoming an ethical, global citizen. Students in the course read scholarly articles and texts, watch timely documentaries, participate in academic discussion, and become familiar with the UN Global Goals. They complete quizzes, create blogs, and write reflection essays. Combined, these assignments are designed to prepare participants for their study abroad experience (decreasing culture shock) and ultimately, college. While we believe in the power of technology to educate the next generation of global leaders, all our programs for Title I students are staffed by at least one secondary educator and one college professor. All BLV staff and educators are extensively trained in Best Practices.
Since the inception of the BU/BLV partnership, we have seen a 233% increase in the number of Title I participants. 100% of participants graduate from high school and attend college. When asked, in online, post-GSLC surveys, to rate their knowledge of the historical, political, scientific, cultural, and socioeconomic interconnections between the USA and other parts of the world, 98% agreed that participation in the BU/BLV GSLC program had deepened their understanding.
What inspired you to work for Bright Light Volunteers?
I volunteered abroad with my children beginning when they were 5 and 7-years-old. Witnessing the way that service and travel has influenced them during their development was inspiring. I want to help all youth be able to participate in international travel and service and believe that has the power to make the world a brighter place for all!
Describe a typical day at work.
Even though the job sounds like it is all adventure and traveling, most of the work for Bright Light Volunteers staff happens on the ground here in the U.S. There are always emails and inquiries to handle, data entry, post program interviews, insurance procurement for groups, and the HUGE amount of other logistical work that goes on in the background in order to run these sorts of programs in host communities around the world.
Why do you do what you do?
I have a heart that calls me to be of service and I have a genuine concern about the divisiveness, inequality, and cross-cultural hatred that I see in the world. I believe that through travel, education, and service that we can cultivate more peace, compassion, and tolerance in the world.
What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of the job—hands down—is working on the ground with a student group and host community as a stateside BLV rep. Being able to help lead the program and group and witness the changes in perception and openness that they experience gives me the joy and energy needed to continue to further our organizational mission.
How do you use your education and international background in your current role?
As a graduate Magna Cum Laude of Southern Methodist University, I pursued international studies and cultural anthropology with a focus on Latin America. Having an educational background, as well as my previous international experience, gave me the perfect tools for my trade.
What are some current projects you are working on?
One big project at the moment is finalizing our new website! In our work, things change a lot and we needed to migrate to a platform that allows us to maintain and update our website at the click of a button.
What advice would you tell your pre-travel self?
Don’t be scared of wandering because it is when wandering that one finds the opportunity to discover oneself. Speak the local language even if you can’t speak fluently…how will you ever speak fluidly if you don’t practice with those who know it best!
What makes Bright Light Volunteers special?
A large part of what makes Bright Light Volunteers special and unique is the manner in which we have formally combined a unique educational component into our global service learning programs.
Why should someone choose your organization over competitors?
Students that participate in our program receive three hours of transferable college credit through our educational partner Bethel University. They also receive a Certificate of Global Citizenship and the bronze level of the Presidential Service Award. We offer very comprehensive and fun programming that changes lives.
What hopes do you have for the future of Bright Light Volunteers?
I hope that we will continue to be able to bring in funding for our student scholarship program. Travel and service change students’ lives. Through our scholarship program we are helping to fund programs for students attending Title 1 schools.
Are there any developments with your organization that you would like to share with us?
We were recently a finalist in GoAbroad’s 2019 Innovation Awards for “Innovation in Diversity” and I was able to attend the event in D.C. We didn’t win in that category, but it was inspiring to be in a room full of people who feel as passionately about the power of travel to transform!
What makes your organization easy to market to potential participants?
The opportunity for dual enrollment college credit for high school students is a really great opportunity that differentiates our programs from the crowd.
What is the mission of Bright Light Volunteers and how do you continue to work toward it?
The mission of Bright Light Volunteers is to make the world a brighter place by providing educational service opportunities that foster the development of global leaders and citizens.
What do you hope participants take away from your programs?
I hope participants leave the program with a newfound sense of belonging and purpose. I hope it inspires them to create and partake in service initiatives in their home communities and that they, in turn, teach peace and tolerance to others…like a ripple effect of love and compassion.
If you could participate on one of your organization’s programs, where would you go and what would you do?
I still haven’t been able to participate in our newest Costa Rica program!!! We are working with several small community groups there that are doing really interesting work in upcycling trash collected on the beaches to help community members create art to sell to tourists and supplement their income while bringing awareness to the global garbage crisis.
What questions do participants often ask you, and how do you typically respond?
Is it safe? My response: We can’t guarantee safety (no one can) but our team has done and continues to do an incredible job mitigating any possible security/safety concerns. We use safe, contracted, and licensed drivers, we typically operate in small host communities, and we have trained program leaders with the group every step of the way.
Why is it important for people to travel abroad and experience new cultures?
Mark Twain said it best: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness. In order to be able to cultivate peace in the world we must have a broader experience of what it means to be human in the world.”
What does meaningful travel mean to you?
I think all travel is meaningful. Any time someone tiptoes out of their cultural comfort zone it is a cause for celebration. It is difficult for people to be intolerant of others or for hatred to consume hearts when, by experience, one sees oneself reflected in others. We are a global community and travel only facilitates our ability to connect with one another.
What hopes do you have for the future of international education?
I hope that in the future international education is made an available option for all students, regardless of the financial barrier to participation. Unequal access to these sorts of educational programs creates a deeper divide in our communities at home and abroad. We are a global society and a global society demands for global citizenship education.
Bright Light Volunteers puts education and global citizenship at the heart of its mission to make the world a brighter place. We have partnered with an accredited university to achieve our mission and sustain our core values, which makes our nonprofit a one-of-a-kind organization. In partnership with Bethel University (of McKenzie, Tennessee), we offer opportunities specifically designed to prepare students to become the global thinkers and leaders of tomorrow.
Our programs use a methodology called global-service learning, which combines international community service with experiential learning. This approach creates culturally aware global leaders and citizens who understand their place in the world and their ability to effect change both at home and abroad.
Students will travel, learn, serve, and lead through each of our programs; each one provides transformative, culturally immersive, experiences abroad.
Since our partnership has developed, participants now have the opportunity to enroll in a six-week online course in Global Service Learning and Citizenship (GSLC) through Bethel University. With guidance from UNESCO global citizenship education, the GSLC course equips students with the knowledge and functional skills necessary to become culturally competent. Students gain exposure to the history and culture of the host country, preparing them for the experience of cultural immersion and exchange.
We then provide opportunities to serve by working side-by-side with local partners on community-led service projects abroad, allowing students to develop a deeper understanding of the host country and culture. Students can expect to serve between 20 and 80 hours, depending on the length and location of the program.