Hero photograph
Treking in Laos.
Photo by Supplied

Students enter a world of challenge

Duncan McKinlay —

Over the summer holidays, 5 students from Nayland College embarked on a trip of a lifetime when they travelled to Laos and Vietnam as part of the World Challenge program.

Students that take part in this program are pushed out of their comfort zones through a mixture of being taken to exotic destinations, given almost total independence and responsibility over the trip, and the chance to do volunteer work.

On the 21-day trip were Nayland Students Emma McCrae, Harlan Adams and Tala Hawkes, all in Year 11. They were joined by Year 12 students Tara Hagan and Ben Polson, as well as Nayland College teacher Brennan Geddes. The Nayland contingent then joined up with 11 students from Newlands College to form their traveling party.

According to Mr Geddes, the World Challenge program is deliberately set up to put students at the forefront of the day-to-day business of running the trip. “World Challenge set up the trips so that students are in charge of accommodation, travel, finances, activities and group safety," he said. "So all students had the opportunity to be in charge of organising the group. This often meant a huge responsibility but also ensured the students developed life-long skills.” 

For Tara Hagan and Ben Polson, this made the trip much different to previous trips they had taken with their parents. “Traveling with your family…they mainly do it all for you. But in this case we had to do everything ourselves,” Tara said. “We had choices of where to go and what to do, how we managed our budget and everything.”

According to Ben, this freedom allowed for much more spontaneity throughout the trip. “We’d wake up in the morning and the budget team would give us money and they were like ‘Right, see you at six,’” he said. This led to the students taking more off-beat approaches to tourism such as going on an 18km tuk tuk ride to see an out of the way attraction.

This ‘hands-on’ approach to travelling, also stretched to fundraising for the trip. According to Mr Geddes, this was an arduous, but rewarding process for the students. “Fundraising was a full year’s work! It's part of the process of learning to be organised, working with others and to set a goal and achieve it.” Fundraising included bake sales, sausages sizzles and even some night shifts at the Warehouse.

Being in such an exotic location led to the students having some fantastic experiences that they will remember for the rest of their lives. For Ben, the highlight was a trek through the mountains of Vietnam. “We left Sapa, which is a mountain city built on a hill. The people there are really really cool. We then went tramping down through patty fields and through these little villages. Seeing all these little isolated communities was really wild to me.”

Tara enjoyed the chance to experience nature in a new way. “We went and did a trek with elephants and we got to feed them and pat them and stuff,” she said. “Kayaking in Lan Ha Bay was also amazing…just nice and peaceful.”

As well as the enhanced responsibility foisted on the students, another significant part of the trip was the time the students spent volunteering in Hoay Fai Village in Laos. Tara said the students were fully immersed in village life, volunteering their time and labour. “We helped paint their school, we helped build a community center for the tourists that came through the village. We did gardening, fishing and blacksmithing,” Tara said.

“We made thatched roofs,” Ben added.

Tara relished the reciprocal nature of the cultural exchange. “Even just playing with the kids, we taught them card games like Memory. And then we learnt all their local village dances, and their little games,” she said.

The students also donated $500 of their hard-earned fundraising money to the village as well.

Village life was very different to what the students were used to, with many facilities they had taken for granted in the Western world missing. There was no electricity, no waste management systems, no Wi-Fi or cell service, and only squat toilets. This gave the students not only a new appreciation of life in New Zealand, but also an understanding that life is more than just access to modern conveniences.

“It has made me a lot more grateful for what we have here, because over there it is crazy how happy there are with nothing, compared to what we have,” Tara said.

“They would come here and feel homesick,” Ben agreed.

Mr Geddes said that he saw a huge amount of growth in the students over their time in South East Asia. “All students were affected by their experiences. Many grew in confidence and matured as they embraced more responsibility,” he said.

While Tara and Ben acknowledged that the World Challenge wasn’t for everyone, they did think that young people looking for an exciting way to travel should give it a go.

“It was 100 per cent worth it and life changing. It gets you out of your comfort zone and will make you try new things,” Tara said.