Karessa Irvin is a real traveler. That is, she is the type of traveler who seeks out hyperlocal experiences and gets to know people so she can better understand their cultures and find the similarities and embrace the differences between them. When she got the chance to travel to Colombia through the Princeton in Latin America program, which partners recent college graduates in the U.S. with non-profit, humanitarian organizations in Latin America, Karessa knew this was something she wanted to do. “I was in graduate school studying to be a clinical social worker and I just applied for it,” Karessa says about the fellowship. “I didn’t think I’d get it, and I was really excited about the opportunity, but I needed to be able to finance the trip, and I didn’t have money prior to graduate school.”
That’s when Karessa applied for Hostelling International USA’s Explore the World travel scholarship. The program is part of the organization’s belief that traveling, and especially traveling with the aim to leave the world a little better than you find it, should be accessible to everyone. In 2017, HI USA awarded 98 $2000 scholarships to young people across America who had planned a trip abroad with a service or learning component and needed the financial assistance to make their travel dreams a reality. Karessa’s plan was to help out at a protection house where young Colombians who had been involved in the country’s civil conflict lived and learned. She arrived in Medellín in Colombia’s mountainous region in September 2016 and settled into the volunteer house with fellow travelers from Europe.
“It was beautiful,” Karessa says, thinking back on her first impressions of her new home. “There are so many mountains and hills and I had never experienced that before.” The volunteers lived close to the protection house for children aged 7-19 years old, and each day she would accompany them to school and helped students who needed more targeted work. “When I woke up in the morning, I heard singing, I heard talking and chatter. The children were so captivated with us.” Karessa recalls. Part of the volunteer work also involved planning extra-curricular enrichment activities and trips for the youth, who also had trade lessons through the protection house to help make them employable.
Along with helping the out at the NGO, Karessa was interested in learning about and connecting with members of the African diaspora. Most of her trip highlights came from the connections she made with like-minded people, from the education leader at the group home, to her friend Rodrigo, who ran a school in Brazil where they teach afro-centric history and other subjects, including English. Another was a young man who had lived at the protection house years ago, and Karessa bonded with him over their shared love of African history.
“I would talk to him about Malcom X and other black leaders, and we would have debates,” she says excitedly. “It was just a delight to meet a young person who was conscious and seeking me out as a resource.”
Back at home now in Oakland (though Karessa is originally Brooklyn-born and proud), she does social work combined with psychology, and she is actively involved in the lives of the young people she helps. “For example, tomorrow I’m taking a kid to community service, and I have to go to the school.” Karessa says. “So my work involves helping in all domains of their lives.”
And that’s ultimately what makes Karessa a true traveler and the type of candidate to whom HI USA awards the Explore the World scholarship: part of traveling with purpose is to return home with a profound sense of intercultural appreciation and a dedication to spreading the word about travel and tolerance to their communities. And that’s what Karessa does every day, whether it’s here, or in the mountains of South America.
HI USA Tip: Find out where Philip Jones got to go thanks to the Explore the World scholarship.