Communication is a pivotal characteristic of strong leadership, and the ability to hold a meaningful conversation across cultural boundaries is the most challenging form of communication. Creating opportunities for students to develop their abilities in this arena is of paramount importance to The Island School. Due to the isolated setting of The Island School’s campus, our students have limited opportunities during an average day to engage local inhabitants. Thus an integrated cultural contact program was developed to create and guide immersion experiences in the local communities of South Eleuthera.
The hub of the cultural contact program is the history course, which focuses on the students’ acquiring skills and theoretical understandings pertinent to cross-cultural dialogue. Building ethnographic and interpersonal skills in the classroom, the students apply and refine their understandings through “field” experiences created by the other programs. Most experiential components of the program, including Settlement Days and Community Outreach, have a structured assignment that contributes to a cumulative portfolio assessment for the first unit of the history course.
As the semester progresses and the students gain competence and comfort in holding cross-cultural conversations, the structured assignments yield to more unstructured time in the settlements and among local inhabitants. For example, the second unit for the history course is an in-depth study of tourism as a development strategy on Eleuthera. During their investigations, students interview a variety of stakeholders and are challenged to empathize with each one’s point of view regarding an actual development proposal. The assessment for this unit requires that the students can effectively apply the ethnographic skills learned in the first unit to ensure that they have created a well-informed impact assessment for the proposed development. The Down Island Trips that happen concurrently broaden the students’ understandings of the importance and challenges of tourism on Eleuthera, while simultaneously bringing them into contact with the people whom tourism impacts.
In the end, students learn through the cultural contact programs that leadership hinges on good communication skills, which can only be cultivated with an open mind and honest dialogue. Many aspects of The Island School’s curriculum—seminar discussions in the classroom, research initiatives, guest speakers—benefit from this program because the skills are fundamental to learning. And, most importantly, the understandings developed in the cultural contact programs are imperative characteristics of true leaders, who can bridge divides others cannot.
The Community Outreach Program is a critical component of the cultural contact programs at The Island School. A conceptual understanding of cross-cultural communication is developed in the history course, and the time spent with their Deep Creek Middle School “buddies” allows them to put those understandings into practice. Ultimately, students from both schools learn some of the most important skills necessary to being a leader—empathy and communication.
Communicating effectively across cultural boundaries is an extremely challenging skill to develop. It demands a developed ability to empathize with another person as well as sensitivity to the cultural lenses affecting the conversation. Consequently, the Community Outreach Program is structured to assure that student buddies from The Island School and Deep Creek Middle School are provided with ample and regular time to learn from each other throughout the semester.
On a weekly basis, students spend two hours together. Early in the semester, much of this time is dedicated to structured activities that encourage IS and DCMS students to learn from and about their “buddy.” As the semester progresses, that learning happens more naturally as the students work together on community projects.
Settlement days are important venues for the students to become familiar with the settlements of South Eleuthera. Split into small groups to avoid overwhelming any one settlement and further separated into pairs within each settlement, students are given an entire day to explore. Structured tasks that require the students to uncover the stories of their settlement by speaking to the local inhabitants encourage students to engage and learn from the people they meet. Various activities challenge the students to learn about their assigned settlement’s history, geography, attractions, economy, and culture. The students also practice their ethnographic skills by conducting personal history interviews of local inhabitants. The information students collect contributes to their portfolio assessment in history class and is composed into a resource for their families over Parents’ Weekend.
Saturday night activities are often excellent ways for Island School students to hang out in settlements, develop relationships with their Community Outreach buddies, or meet new people. Approximately half of the 14 Saturday night activities for the students are set in the local settlements, and many involve Deep Creek Middle School students. Pizza parties, basketball and softball tournaments, outdoor movie screenings, and holiday celebrations constitute some of the events that IS and DCMS students share during a semester. And there are a number of Bahamian celebrations, such as fish fries and homecomings, that welcome our attendance—much to our students’ benefit. Though little structure accompanies these events, some of the best cultural learning happens during these fun experiences.
With a long sailing tradition in the archipelago, Bahamians visualize north as “down” because the currents run south to north, hence the name “Down Island.” Down Island Trips are a chance for students to see and experience the central and northern sections of Eleuthera. These excursions are 3-day car-camping trips that allow students to spend time in larger settlements like Governor’s Harbour and Spanish Wells, explore sites of historical or natural interest, and gain a wider perspective of the tourism industry on Eleuthera.
The days are filled with meeting new people and exploring new settlements, body surfing on the sugar sand beaches along the Atlantic, investigating caves used by Lucayans, historical settlers and bats, snorkeling tidal channels that offer a rapids-like ride, or just relaxing and bonding by a campfire. Down Island Trips are essential for exposing students to the wider geography and culture of Eleuthera and remind students how much the natural and cultural landscape has to teach us.
Sunday Church Services
If you ask a Bahamian what the best way to get involved in their community is, they invariably answer that attending church is the most important activity. Church attendance is made available to students every Sunday, and one visit is required by the history curriculum. We make arrangements to accommodate all students who want to attend church on any Sunday, and split them up into small groups to ensure that we do not overwhelm any one congregation. These visits are rich experiences for our students, as they expose them to expressions of worship often very different from what they are accustomed. The history assignment that accompanies the mandatory visit challenges the students both to identify key areas of cultural difference and/or similarity and to delve into the possible meanings and values that guide the spiritual practices of South Eleutherans. Because many students cite church attendance as the cultural immersion experience that places them furthest out of their comfort zone, it often serves as the most meaningful cultural encounter of the student’s semester.