Teaching & Traveling

  1. Tell us a bit about your background. (Ex: where you’re from, how long you taught or did another career and where, your age if you want, your travel background, where you are now and what you’re doing, etc.)

My name is Stacie Freeman.  I am an Associate Professor of Sociology at Bethel University (BU) in Tennessee, the Director of BU Global Studies, and the Co-Executive Director of Bright Light Volunteers (BLV).  In that capacity, I teach Global Service Learning and Citizenship courses to both college and high school students.  Through these six-week courses, students learn via online coursework, cultural immersion, and reflection activities. In-country, they volunteer alongside our international partners on community-led service projects, for which they earn the President’s Volunteer Service Award and three hours of college credit.  So, five weeks “in the classroom” and one week “in-country” is our formula.  I have been organizing and leading local, national, and international service programs since 2007.  I have led 25 student groups and visited over 30 countries (through work and with family).

  1. Explain one (or more) interesting travels you have undertaken (or are currently undertaking) during your time outside of your regular home-country classroom/job. (Where did you go, what did you do, for how long, and how was it?)

I recently returned from Thailand with a group of students from Chico, CA.  Our service there was focused on education (we taught basic English in Hill Tribe schools) and elephant rescue.  Thailand is one of my favorite places to learn and serve.  The rich culture, beautiful scenery, and kind people make it an ideal location for students and educators.  We began our two week journey in Chiang Mai where we explored temples in the company of a former Buddhist Monk.  So, not only did we enjoy the beautiful architecture of the wats and pagodas, we learned a tremendous amount about Buddhism and its cultural impact in Thailand, an excellent supplement to the coursework offered online.  While in Chiang Mai, we also explored night markets, art museums, and even visited the local women’s prison for a massage via a government sponsored social program.  The idea is that the women learn a marketable skill so that when they’re released they can support themselves and their children. The program is innovative AND successful. The prison / government has even opened spas in Chiang Mai to create jobs, post-release. Pretty cool!  Other culturally immersive activities included cooking lessons, a homestay in the countryside, a bike ride through the rice paddies, and trekking through Doi Inthanon National Park.  Our second week in Thailand was totally dedicated to service.  For this arm of the program, we drove several hours into the hills of Thailand and spent the week living and working among the oldest Hill Tribes in Thailand, the Karen and the Hmong.  We taught English in the local primary schools and served on an elephant rescue project.  Essentially, the Hmong and Karen people, due to economic necessity, had been renting their elephants to the logging industry, circuses, and tourism.  In these environments, the elephants were horribly mistreated.  Through an innovative rescue program, the elephants have been returned to their owners and are now freely roaming the jungle.  It is a beautiful thing to see and experience.  As volunteers in the project, we fed the elephants, helped in the garden (where nutritious food is grown to feed the elephants and their mahouts), and assisted with paving a road to ease the delivery of volunteers and supplies to the project.  At the end of our time with the Hill Tribe people, the local Shaman came to our village and blessed our group with a prayer of thanks for our help and protection for our return home. Incredible!!!

  1. How do you find your travel opportunities? (Ex: website, friend, group.)

As the Director of Global Studies, I have multiple connections to agencies and organizations offering travel opportunities to students and educators.  My inbox stays full.  However, I began working with Bright Light Volunteers (BLV) in 2016.  While I have worked with other orgs since then, most of my programs are currently organized by BLV.

  1. How did you find the money to fund your travel? (Ex: savings, scholarships, grants, fundraising, etc.)

I plan my programs one year in advance.  This gives students and their families time to fundraise.  Some of my students secure part-time employment to pay for the experience, others request funding from clubs like Rotary and Lions.  A few have had success securing scholarships through orgs like SYTA as well.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

  1. Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.

This summer, I had the opportunity to meet Lek Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park (ENP).  She is a tiny but MIGHTY woman.  She rescued her first elephant 20 or so years ago.  Today, there are over 80 elephants being cared for at ENP.  In addition to the rescued herd, she and her staff care for over 500 dogs and cats at the park.  This enormous project started with one woman on one mission.  Today,  her voice and hard work for the voiceless, abused animals she rescues is heard around the world.  In her presence, I was reminded that no matter how big the world’s problems, we ALL have the power to leave this place better than we found it.

  1. How have your travels impacted you as a teacher (if you went back to teaching) or in your current career, and how have your travels impacted you as a person?

My travel informs everything I do.  Experiencing other people, from other places has improved my understanding of my role as a global citizen and my responsibility for developing solutions to global social problems.  I see this in my students as well.  On post-service surveys, 100% of my students report that the experience has contributed positively to their appreciation for and understanding of other people and cultures and that their awareness of global social problems and solutions has been improved.  They also report having a better understanding of their role as global citizens and of the interconnection between the US and other countries and cultures. As an educator, reading those surveys has been highly impactful and on hard days, keeps me going.

  1. What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching? (Either general inspirational words and/or specific sites, organizations, strategies, or links which are useful.)

Be persistent!  If your administration is hesitant or resistant, take baby steps.  I started by volunteering with students close to home, in our local community.  Then, I began organizing service programs across our state.  My next move was to organize service projects across the country.  Finally, seven years in, my proposal to travel with students to Costa Rica was approved.   Sometimes, it takes time.  Don’t give up!  “Water cuts through rock not because of its strength but because of its persistence.”

Elephant refuge in Thailand

Elephant refuge in Thailand where our program participants partake in various service initiatives!

Love is all you need!

Global Service Learning Leader Honored with GreatNonprofit’s Prestigious Top-Rated Award

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:

Top Nonprofit Honor- GreatNonprofits

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. 

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.  


Dallas Teen Inspires Change in the World via Education, Travel, and Service


Alexis Soria is a young woman on a mission and she’s got a lot of supporters cheering her on along the way. Last month, Alexis participated in a comprehensive global service learning program in Costa Rica, thanks to generous grants and support that came in from multiple sources after Alexis was awarded a Bright Light Volunteers scholarship sponsored by DFW’s Hispanic 100 – a nonprot organization that promotes Hispanic women’s leadership roles in the private and public sector.

After receiving the H-100 scholarship, Alexis was awarded additional support in the form of a Road Scholarship from the Student Youth Travel Association (SYTA) as well as support from Si Se Puede, an organization that provides advice to students to work for academic success, encourage volunteering, and help students grow into leadership positions.

Alma Garcia, Board Member of Bright Light Volunteers says, “The fact that several nonprots jumped in and helped leverage a small scholarship from H100 into being able to completely fund this opportunity for Alexis is powerful and will, no doubt, have ripple effects throughout our community.”

Alexis, now a Junior at DISD’s Irma Lerma Rangel School Young Women’s Leadership School, isn’t new to this sort of experience. Last year, thanks in part to private sponsorships, Alexis served in the highlands of the Sacred Valley in Peru where she spent time teaching, aiding in the construction of water filtration system, and immersing herself in the people and culture of Peru.

Alexis Soria while volunteering at an animal refuge in Costa Rica with Bright Light Volunteers.

“International education allows me to stretch and grow.”

Recently we got to sit down and debrief with Alexis after she returned home from her latest global service learning experience in Costa Rica and asked her some questions to get a sense of how these experiences have shaped her life and future ambitions:

BLV: What has the opportunity to serve, learn, and lead meant for you?

AS: To serve means that I take a part of my community into another country and plant a seed there. To learn means learning about other cultures and nding ways we can help. We don’t know the struggles other cultures have until we engage with them. To lead means bringing what I learn in other countries to my local community; international education allows me to stretch and grow.

BLV: Has this experience changed you in any way?
AS: Yes … it has changed me in different ways. I learned that we have a lot of commodities living in the U.S. and people in other parts of the world don’t have the basic necessities (toothbrush, towel, bed, etc.) to not only survive … but to thrive. In America we hustle, hustle, hustle and take a lot for granted. In other countries, people value other things like family and tradition.

BLV:Is it important to travel? Why or why not?

AS: Yes. It is important because we get to learn how other people live, their culture and traditions. You learn a lot about how communities work together within a country. In Costa Rica, for example, everyone is laid back, but they do not take anything for granted. A local man explained how their country recovered from the last hurricane by every person contributing in the restoration process. It takes a lot of heart and pride from its inhabitants.

BLV: What are your dreams for yourself and how do you plan to get there?

AS: My dream (as a little girl) was to become a doctor. But the more I learn about the lack of respect for the Mexican community (we are always bashed; we are not appreciated), I want to be a role model for other Mexican girls to love their heritage and help empower the Mexican community. I have volunteered helping Mexicans complete immigration forms and being an activist as a way to gain awareness of the immigration crisis. Doing something in the immigration eld would put me in a position to be encouraging and show compassion to those entering our borders.

About Bright Light Volunteers

Bright Light Volunteers is a 501(c)(3), non-prot organization, designed to empower program participants and community partners through education and service. Specifically, our programs adhere to global service-learning best practices, which combine community service with both experiential learning in the eld and online coursework through our university partner, Bethel University. Our vision is to make the world a brighter place by creating a more peaceful, just, interconnected world where global challenges and opportunities are met by educated, compassionate, global citizens and leaders.

About the Hispanic 100:

The Hispanic 100 is a network of D/FW-area Latina leaders who are committed to increasing business development opportunities for Hispanic, women-owned businesses and to promoting Hispanic women’s leadership roles in the private and public sectors. The organization’s endowment fund supports initiatives that address the needs of Hispanic women and girls in the D/FW area. For more information, visit http://www.dfwhispanic100.org. Visit us on Facebook at DFW Hispanic 100 or follow us on Twitter @DFWH100.


Finding Family in Cuba

Finding Family in Cuba

By Ethan Besnard

For most Americans there is a great deal of interest and mystery in Cuba because, until recently, we have not been able to explore the country. When offered this once in a lifetime opportunity with BLV’s award winning Cuba program, it was an automatic yes for me and I knew I would enjoy every second of it. I had already experienced one BLV program and was excited knowing how much that first trip impacted my life. I couldn’t wait to learn more from a different culture and lifestyle.

Upon arrival in Cuba, there was an immediate realization that Cuba’s economy appeared to be suffering. The airport in Havana was small, run down, had no air-conditioning and little organization. As we waited for transportation, I watched dozens of Cubans carting out TVs and other electronics that were difficult to obtain or too costly on the island which resulted in Cubans traveling to other countries to make purchases.  This was a shocking contrast to our quick Costco runs or Amazon orders.

Our BLV guide told us that one of our most important jobs was to help increase Cuba’s middle class, which was why we weren’t staying in hotels, but casitas: local homeowners who rent out rooms.  I quickly learned there were many advantages to staying in a casita over a hotel.  I was able to get to know the owners personally, became part of their community, practiced my Spanish, and enjoyed delicious home-cooked meals.

In our first night in Havana, our casita owner Maria hosted a big welcome party for us.  She and her family decorated, cooked langosta (lobster which is difficult to purchase), and hired professional salsa dancers for our entertainment.  Despite my language barrier, I could still communicate with our hosts through their patience and gestures.  Before long, there were no more barriers and we all danced and clapped together enjoying a true cultural celebration.

Havana’s streets were lined with brightly colored 1950s cars.  The buildings stood tall and closely together.  The ocean breeze provided comfort from the hot sun.  While Havana was overgrown with buildings and history, the small western town of Viñales was much more rural and provided warm people, beautiful views of greenery and the famous mogotes, and incredible food.

The real joy of the program came when we started our service on an organic farm in Viñales. After learning that the Cuban government takes 90% of the farmers’ crops for their own use, we knew the more we helped on the farm, the more the farmers could keep for themselves. We would walk to the farm everyday and spend hours planting, digging, weeding, and preparing for new crops. All of the farmers were very gracious and offered plenty of food throughout the day.  We did our best to keep up with the farmers and could tell they appreciated our work ethic.  After long days of working alongside these men, it was quite difficult to say goodbye. We gifted them tools, gloves, socks, etc. and they gifted us memories and gratefulness.

I have noticed similarities between my two BLV programs but the one that occured every single day on each program was the generosity of the local people who had little to offer; the farmers, who made just enough money to support themselves and their families gave us food from their farm, the casita owners who opened their homes for us to stay in overfilled our plates at each meal, the baseball players who played friendly games with us offered fresh pineapple to quench our thirst. Seeing the generosity of the Cubans was eye opening. While Cuba is a beautiful place, it is the people who make the country magical.



All Rhodes Lead to Service

All “Rhodes” Lead to Service

By Ethan Besnard

I was only 11 when my mom decided it was important for me to see my place in the world.  My mom took me along with her AP and IB students on a BLV service program to Greece, where we would visit Athens and spend majority of our time on the island of Rhodes. The trip was well organized and we got to see two very different styles of living in the big city and a more rural village.  While in Athens, we visited many ancient structures, including the Parthenon and ate fresh organic foods; however, it was our time in Rhodes that made a more significant impact.  There weren’t as many people and the city wasn’t as advanced. As soon as we arrived in Rhodes we traveled to a facility for special needs children.  The facility was trashed and overgrown outside.  I felt compelled to help the children, especially once I saw them through the windows.  We each had specific roles to do – I cut overgrown bushes, cleared out areas on the playground, and planted. We worked for several hours and transformed the run-down facility to an environment more conducive to learning. It was then that I realized what we came to Greece to do: to complete sustainable projects to provide for those in need.

Our group did many projects on the program, but one that I really enjoyed was repairing and painting an elderly couple’s home.  The house was hundreds of years old and poorly maintained.  We spent endless hours cleaning, scraping, priming, and painting the interior of the home.   Other community members watched and wondered why we came to help.  They didn’t seem to understand the concept of service, but were soon inspired by our group.  The couple whose home we painted was so grateful and yet they didn’t speak a word of English. I specifically remember the elderly woman offering me a blanket because it was very cold that day. Although we didn’t speak the same language, I tried to convince her to use the blanket instead, but she was more concerned about me.  Painting the house made me feel good inside knowing that we improved their quality of life and that the couple would remember us for the rest of their lives.

Of all the projects we did, the one that resonates the most with me and that I will always carry in the back of my mind is working in a Syrian refugee camp. Here I witnessed people, from kids to elders, who had lost everything.  In fact, many had lost loved ones and witnessed war and bloodshed.  While I was sympathetic, it was impossible to put myself in their shoes and truly understand what they had experienced.  Still, we listened to their stories and provided as much comfort as possible.  One teenage girl explained she was in school when there was an attack and she witnessed people being murdered.  This same girl was eager to learn German because her family planned to move to Germany and start fresh.  I respected this girl and the fact that she was willing to help contribute to her family and still had such hope about the future.

It was difficult to see the poor living conditions the refugees were living in.  There was a giant warehouse where all of the refugees lived.  Greek volunteers would hand out donations – clothing, food, books, educational supplies, toiletries, etc.  I witnessed the volunteers and refugees looking out for each other.  It was inspiring.  We purchased and served food and supplies.  We listened to our new friends and created bonds.  My favorite part of working at the refugee camp was playing soccer with the kids and adults. I remember thinking that it is incredible that something as small as a soccer ball could bring joy to a group of people who had nothing.

Even though I fell asleep on the dinner table each night from exhaustion, I will never forget my first Bright Light program and how it changed me. I see how fortunate I am to be able to help other people. I love learning about different cultures and lifestyles.  I realize that people are the same everywhere and our differences are outnumbered by our similarities.

Stacie Freeman & Catherine Greenberg

University Professor and Non-profit ED Reimagine Global Citizenship Education for U.S. High School Students


Stacie Freeman, a Tennessee university sociology professor and Catherine Greenberg, a Texas non-prot executive director, joined forces to create an innovative partnership designed to reimagine, even revolutionize, global citizenship education for U.S. high school students.

“In order to effect global change, education must evolve and expand to prepare all young people to create a brighter future,” says Professor Freeman. “We both understood what needed to be done to help solve for this deficit and we felt up to the challenge. Even in this new age of technology, where ideas, money, and goods can be transported around the globe in mere seconds—the term “global citizen” is still commonly misunderstood.”

According to Oxfam Education, “a global citizen is aware of and understands the wider world and their place in it. They take an active role in their community, and work with others to make our planet more equal, fair, and sustainable.” At Bright Light Volunteers (BLV), it is believed that global citizens and leaders are created through high quality, rigorous education coupled with sustainable, international service. Through an innovative partnership with Bethel University (BU), together, they provide a ground-breaking global service learning and citizenship program where high school students enroll in a Global Service Learning and Citizenship course, for college credit or a certificate of global citizenship, prior to volunteering abroad. This unique, multifaceted approach to global citizenship education results in the deep global competence required of tomorrow’s leaders.

Greenberg reports that the BLV-BU partnership is working. Since inception, students who participate in Bright Light Volunteers’ Global Service Learning and Citizenship programs report:

Improved understanding of local, national, and global challenges

Improved understanding of the interconnectedness of the worlds’ countries and people

Professor Freeman with a group of dual enrollment high school students in Cuba.

“We’re determined to make the world a brighter place,” Greenberg smiles. “One student at a time.”

Willingness to act effectively and responsibly on a local, national, and international level Increased appreciation and respect for diversity
Improved critical thinking skills for problem solving, peacemaking, and social responsibility Increased empathy for others and the environment

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In addition to these findings, 100% of BLV high school participants graduate and attend college. This is especially encouraging in the rural, Title One schools where Freeman and Greenberg are creating opportunities. By all accounts, this dynamic duo really is reshaping the educational landscape and challenging the status quo when it comes to access to global education. “We’re determined to make the world a brighter place,” Greenberg smiles. “One student at a time.”


Bright Light Volunteers is a 501(c)(3), non-prot organization, designed to empower program participants and community partners through education and service. Specifically, our programs adhere to global service-learning best practices, which combine community service with both experiential learning in the eld and online coursework through our university partner. Our vision is to make the world a brighter place by creating a more peaceful, just, interconnected world where global challenges and opportunities are met by educated, compassionate, global citizens and leaders.

Founded in 1842, Bethel University is a nonprofit institution that is regionally accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Bethel University’s mission is to create opportunities for members of the learning community to develop in a Christian environment their highest intellectual, spiritual, and social potential. This includes synchronous and asynchronous modes of education.