Heather Halstead founded Reach the World, a virtual exchange nonprofit, in 1998. Heather has served as Reach the World’s Executive Director since that time. Reach the World makes the benefits of travel accessible to classrooms, inspiring students to become curious, confident, and compassionate global citizens. A native of New York City, Heather attended Dartmouth College and majored in History and Education. She resides in Washington, D.C. with her husband and two sons.
Heather joined Stevens Initiative Assistant Director Henry Shepherd for a conversation about how the organization and its work have evolved, particularly during the pandemic.
Henry Shepherd (HS): What does Reach the World do? How long have you been running virtual exchange? And how have the activities or programs evolved over time?
Heather Halstead (HH): Reach the World has been in operation for about 25 years; we’ll celebrate our 25th anniversary next year, which is very exciting for me. I founded Reach the World when I was still in college, so it has been my lifelong passion, my great joy, and my great privilege to be running Reach the World all these years. Reach the World is a nonprofit organization that seeks to serve K-12 schools throughout the United States in communities that may be historically or systemically excluded from opportunities to engage globally. Our mission statement is to share the benefits of travel with communities that may experience exclusion through the use of technology, specifically virtual exchange.
When I started Reach the World, I was 22 years old and in college, with the great benefit of having grown up in a family that put a big value on travel. It struck me that there must be a way to share some of the benefits of traveling with young children who may not be having those experiences themselves. At the time I was thinking about this idea, the curriculum in K-12 public schools throughout America was shifting toward a strong focus on mathematics and literacy instruction. That was positive in some regards but, in my opinion, it was also negative because that process crowded out other subject areas that I consider essential for building a tolerant, inclusive, and successful society in a globalized world, such as social studies, science education, and geographic education. Simultaneously, the Internet was being born and it occurred to me and a few others at the time that it could help bring travel to life for more kids online.
HS: What did the activities look like in the late 1990s, and how does that compare to what your activities look like now?
HH: The technologies that support virtual exchange have changed a great deal over these two and a half decades. I can very well remember how challenging it was when we first started out in the late 1990s. We connected with a group of schools in Harlem, New York City, that had recently been wired with Internet service. When that project was completed in the late 90s, there was very little content for the schools to consume through those brand new, exciting highways of Internet coming into the schools. So Reach the World approached these schools and said, “we are planning a journey around the globe. We will have young travelers producing lots of great primary source content from the field. This thing called the Internet can deliver that content that is customized to what your students would like to learn about. Name any subject: the Great Pyramids, staple foods in the country being visited – we can be responsive to you.”
For the first 10 years of Reach the World, we presented one to three big journeys per year on our website, which would take in primary source content on the ground and stories from abroad via the travelers. We would present those to teachers and classrooms, and together, the teachers and the travelers would shape one journey for children primarily in grades three through five. In those days, we had very little opportunity for synchronous activities because technology abroad was very weak. In those first 10 years, our programs were what we now call “one to many” virtual exchanges, where we presented one journey around the world: biking up and down all of South America, traveling the Silk Road, visiting the Antarctic and the Arctic Poles. You name it, we did it. We had every imaginable adventure presented to students and teachers and a limited amount of synchronous communication.
HS: How did the program evolve in its second decade?
HH: My goal is always to have much more synchronicity and much more customization of the exchange. Small nonprofit budgets are always tight and web development and engineering is expensive. This often results in having to wait for new technologies to become more affordable. Close to 2010, the technologies that enable great content management system websites became more accessible to us. Reach the World was able to match classrooms one on one so that now we look like an endless open landscape for individual travelers to pair up with a classroom and share their personal journey in a highly customized way with lots of synchronicity. What’s been super fun for us in the last 10 years is we have been able to develop partnerships based upon this new technological framework. We’ve been able to form partnerships with large groups that send travelers abroad, like the Fulbright Program. Returned Peace Corps volunteers are our newest partner coming online this fall. We have a whole list of partners now who send us their young adult travelers who are passionate global citizens, eager to give back, and fantastic at virtual exchange. In addition to the one-on-one format, we’ve also brought back the model from our initial 10 years: big adventure journeys that are presented to thousands of classrooms simultaneously. There’s a place for both, for synchronicity and customization as well as for a broad format, large group participation activity.
HS: Why has Reach the World sought high profile partnerships and how have you been so successful at it over the years? I’m thinking, for example, of your recent collaboration connecting students with the explorers who discovered Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance near Antarctica.
HH: Partnership building is my biggest interest and passion as a founder and executive director because mutually beneficial partnerships do a lot of things for the project, such as lowering costs, expanding access, and enriching the virtual exchange journey in ways not possible without them. The great thing about virtual exchange is that there’s so much opportunity to enrich a core program by involving additional parties. In Reach the World’s case, the core is the companionship that’s established between the traveler, the teacher, and the students. There are endless opportunities to add other voices to enrich the virtual exchange around that core.
HS: How has Reach the World navigated the pandemic? How have you adjusted to the interruption to in-person travel that has been central to your programming?
HH: Our programs are completely organized around American citizens going abroad so when the pandemic began, all of our travelers returned to the U.S. immediately with very few exceptions, and all of our partner programs had to stop their operations. The majority of our partner schools qualify as Title I schools and typically face challenges accessing technology, making their transition to virtual schooling difficult. Our students also typically are from high risk populations and many of them were already grappling with poverty and other difficult circumstances, and now were thrust into home isolation.
For us operationally, it was the most dramatic thing that could have occurred and not something we ever would have predicted. We quickly pivoted to address the need to engage K-12 students at home, particularly younger students with less experience using technology, while their teachers were struggling with transitioning to all digital learning in the context of school systems that were unprepared. We said to ourselves, “this is our moment to rise to the challenge the best that we can, because we have content and resources that we can present in different formats to our younger students, especially to help them stay safe, occupied, and inspired during this dark time.” A couple donors helped us develop Reach the World at Home, which was a new portal for distance learning. We needed to take all the rich and robust content of our teacher-mediated program and quickly reformat it so that it could be a self-guided experience for young students at home, while still remaining connected to the curriculum. Prior to the pandemic, we hadn’t broadcasted livestreams in this way, simply because our programs typically had the teacher as the intermediary and occurred one on one very privately in the classroom. And so, instead of depending upon classrooms being open and operational we suddenly shifted to presenting pretty much around the clock livestream content for young students on our YouTube channel.
HS: What did you learn about less mediated, direct-to-youth content that you tried over the past couple years? Is it something that you all want to continue now that classrooms are reopening?
HH: The pandemic has been a learning experience for us. It helped us to further define ourselves as an organization, or rather reaffirm the importance of having the interactive and synchronous pieces available as much as possible to students participating. During the first few months of the pandemic, we found that not having students visible on camera was very diminishing to the overall impact of the programs. We realized we always need to provide the opportunity for robust student interaction with the presenters, in addition to allowing those who may be more comfortable or only able to watch to be able to do that while still feeling seen by the traveler or explorer. There are other purposes for the delivery of content, such as developing an understanding of the topic or country being explored, but really the main purpose is that the child feels seen and heard by the traveler in a personal way.
HS: Have you thought about incorporating direct communication between young people in the United States and young people in other countries or is that outside the focus of your core work?
HH: That’s outside our scope and it’s deliberately so. I started my journey with virtual exchange in the late 1990s, around the same time a couple other fantastic nonprofits began as well. One of them was iEARN, which has always made it their primary work to connect classrooms to each other. We have made it our primary work to connect classrooms to near-age mentors who are traveling and who can represent and act as intermediary. We have found that for teachers in some communities, especially in communities that have experienced historic or systemic exclusion from global engagement broadly, it can be very difficult to have the confidence to engage right away in a classroom to classroom exchange. In the virtual exchange field, we often assume that all teachers are ready for virtual exchange with classrooms in other countries, but that is not the case and it’s actually a discriminatory assumption that we make in the field. Teachers in communities that have experienced extreme isolation may not be ready for it, so we have a lot of work to do in the field to bring everyone into the fold. This kind of program serves as a more approachable entry point, where we are connecting Americans to Americans abroad, building the global confidence of the participants to be ready for more. This builds not only their own self-efficacy but also their global competence skills for how they might cope or respond while working together with people in other countries if there are language barriers or cultural misunderstandings. I find myself getting that question a lot: “why don’t you connect kids to kids?” Of course we want to connect kids with other kids, but we have to do that when people are ready for it and confident about it, and these building block activities can really be helpful.