Community October 4, 2018

Senior Projects 2018 – Service Abroad

Encouraging Interpersonal Connections

High School: The Sage School

Project Title: Service Abroad: Encouraging Interpersonal Connections

Post-Graduation Plans: Attending University of Redlands

Below is a transcription of Koko Furlong’s oral presentation of her senior project:

Hi, my name is Koko Furlong. Standing here in front of you today is challenging because it’s hard to articulate emotions from an experience that means so much to me. As a child, I was lucky enough to have international travel integrated throughout my life and, for me, at a young age, the richness that came out of travel and experience was more important than any material wealth. Some people say that travel is difficult to remember at such a young age and may even be considered frivolous, but those childhood experiences that I had influenced who I am today, and gave me the curiosity and passion for understanding other cultures and finding out how we can connect through our differences.

I still remember the first time someone tried to communicate with me without speaking any language. My family was visiting Positano, Italy, for a wedding, and while we were there I found a little girl to play with on the beach. Even though there was a language barrier, we spoke through body language and facial expression. We were both kids wanting to be friends and have fun, and nothing held us back from that. We didn’t think about our differences or the language barriers between us because we were kids whose judgments weren’t blinding and the word bias wasn’t in our vocabulary. We understood each other and ended up playing on the beach together for hours.

Later, as a junior in high school, I discovered the Flourish Foundation’s Compassionate Leaders program. With them I was able to travel alongside a group of high school students to India for a service trip. For a month, we communicated with people through service and shared a common goal of wanting to help each other. In India, I formed friendships that I refer back to during my day, every day. The genuine people there always remind me of how beautiful this life and the people in it are. Because of the deeply meaningful service trip to India, I wanted to create a meaningful experience for someone else.

A young girl joyfully runs past a spice shop in the town of Essaouira. Photo by Koko Furlong

The purpose of my project was to discover what made service travel meaningful and how it connected people. I was curious about what made service travel meaningful to me, and how to guide an impactful service trip for my peers. My independent trimester was based on how service travel provides meaningful and transformative learning experiences by connecting people, establishing a positive response to reverse culture shock, and developing a critical lens of one’s self and way of life. Today, I will be focusing more on building bonds through service work overseas and how it can develop deep connections with people by eliminating biases and prejudice.

For my field study, I went to Morocco, working alongside my mentor, Noah Koski, from the Flourish Foundation, helping him organize a service trip to Morocco for a group of Compassionate Leaders to attend this past June. Over the summer, the group usually travels to India and Mexico for service trips, but this was going to be the first service trip to Morocco.

During my project, I was assisting Noah in laying out the plan. Part of the work was figuring out the logistics: where we’re going to eat, where we’re going to stay, and the places we’re going to go while traveling with 13 people. But the main part of our work in Morocco was scouting out places to go and organizations to collaborate with. We connected with an orphanage and a children’s library. We also formed relationships with people on our trip that we interviewed then and in June for a documentary. During our time in Morocco, I interviewed two Moroccan women, both heavily involved in service and both volunteers at the orphanage and the children’s library we worked with.

I’d like to show you a video that I created, which is just a sample of what Noah and I did while scouting out places and organizations to work with. In order to protect the children’s privacy, there is no footage in the video of us working with the orphanage. The video displays human connections and how our differences can connect us. (Video is available at

Traveling to Morocco confirmed my belief that we are all humans in need of love and support, and I understand what a community looks like when they treat people in that same way. The Moroccan people I’d encountered perceived me with fresh eyes and judged me from the reality of who I was. They were curious about where I came from, but wherever one was from they never seemed to judge solely on a country’s reputation or biases that exist. The people we met were always helpful and took time to connect with us no matter how busy they were in that moment.

When we begin to create deeper connections with our neighbors and mend our differences from one another, the destructive biases people create of certain global groups start to fade away. This allows us to bridge our cultural divides. As Louise Rasmussen writes in her article “Cross-Cultural Competence: Engage People from any Culture,” published by Global Cognition, “In all cases, success requires developing a relationship. And doing this means bridging a cultural divide.” In order to uphold our humanity we need to mend cultural divides and form these bonds by seeing each other as human.

Facing one’s biases through service travel is a key way to connect people and can work to eliminate social separateness and prejudice. The process can be transformative. Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton writes in an article in Greater Good Magazine: “The word ‘prejudice’ can literally be broken down into ‘pre-’ and ‘judgment.’ Aptly, much of prejudice stems from our pre-judging other people’s habits, customs, clothes, way of speaking, and values.”

The reason that experiencing the world and participating in service eliminates prejudice is that it gives us opportunity to move past quick assumptions and see beyond biases. I was excited to explore the exotic beauty of Morocco, but I wasn’t sure what to expect or how I would be treated due to our current political stance in the world, as well as religious misconceptions that divide certain groups of people. Understanding and engaging in Moroccan culture helped break down the barriers between us, and we were no longer separate or misunderstood.

Furlong, on the back camel, follows a companion, Noah Koski, on the way to Fes, Moracco

Service travel helps one understand and engage with different cultures, which is necessary to connect people in a transformative way. In order to connect with and support people in the way they want, it is necessary to understand what they need. According to “The Community Toolbox,” a community health resource published by the University of Kansas, “When you are working with people and building relationships with them, it helps to have some perspective and understanding of their culture.”

I’ve been inspired with curiosity to learn more, and The Sage School has helped me create meaningful connections that have bridged my inner world with the larger world. The Sage School is heavily involved in service work and focuses on community building around a healthy environment. To complement my learning in school I wanted my project to be based on creating a large-scale community by connecting with people across the world through service work and sharing the experience with others. I want to create an engaging experience for others and to influence them in becoming global leaders.

Now, I have a few questions for the audience. Please stand up if you have traveled outside of the United States. Stay standing if you’ve participated in service work in another country. Continue standing if your perception of that place and the local people changed over the course of your service trip in a positive manor. Now think about a word that describes your experience. What word comes to mind? Once you think of a word, shout it out. For me, the words that resonate deeply with my experience of traveling for service are connection, impact, and greatly influential. Participating in service work abroad has been a way for me to connect with people all over the world.

The experiences I had during my project were only the beginning. In June, I returned to Morocco with the group to help lead the service trip. In the future, I envision myself continuing to travel with purpose through service and plan to study media and cultures and, ultimately, become a videographer.

This article appears in the Fall 2018 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.