A Summer Whirlwind / by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

Liesl (left), me (middle), Jens (second from the right), and Dad setting off for Ireland! (2005)

I had quite the exciting summer this year. It makes me feel windswept just thinking about it! 

Last November I applied for the EF Global Citizen Scholarship. Every year the topic for the scholarship is different, and this year it was innovations in education. This was perfect for me because I had created my own personalized path through high school. I used my path as my educational idea, expounding upon my belief that subjects should not be as segregated as they are in contemporary education and that students should be taught through the lens of their passions from a young age.  I had to submit a video explaining who I was and my idea. Take a look. 

It took a couple of weeks before I heard back from EF, but when I did I was in the second round of applicants! I was so excited, because if I got the scholarship it meant I would have a free trip around Europe with the other winners and the opportunity to attend a summit about changing education. The Keynote speaker at the conference was Sir Ken Robinson, an education speaker with the most watched TED talk in history (33 million views). I was speechless when I discovered he would be speaking. His famous TED talk was the reason I started my path through high school, which I had used as my educational idea for the application. For the second round of applications I had to submit two other shorter videos, that I won't include here, they're only about a minute long. 

After I sent in my second application I waited... And low and behold I was accepted! Fifteen other students from all around the US and I would be traveling around Europe! But the fun didn't end there. After I was accepted, EF asked all the Global Citizens to make a video or presentation that described some skill people and learners of the future would need. I used my usual flare and skills to illustrate my point...


(Making this video was actually quite stressfull, because I had to do the whole thing in one shot.)

After a couple weeks, the people organizing the conference announced that they were looking for applicants to introduce speakers at the conference. I set my sights high and applied to introduce Sir Ken. I explained how he had inspired me to blaze my own path through school, and how that program was the reason I was at the conference. When I got the email confirming that I would be introducing Sir Ken I ran around the house yelling for about five minutes straight. If you want to see the video I submitted, here you go. 

The trip began on July 17. All the participants met up in a hotel in Boston for a very awkward first two days. No one knew each other and we were all asking the most basic questions. It didn't take very long to find friends though. By the time we reached London, I had made three hilarious friends and we gladly named ourselves the Fabulous Four. London was wonderful, though the hotel we stayed at was a bit dingy and we had to walk through a creepy park to get to the underground station. We took tours of museums, famous sites, and got to see the royal guard changes.

After a few days in London, we took the train to Paris. There we saw the Louvre, The Catacombs, Notre Dame, and Sacre Coeur. Paris was hilariously fun, but when we saw the Eiffel Tower I had to walk down the seven hundred feet of steps because the elevator line was too long, and I am EXTREMELY afraid of heights, I just about hurled. But Aside from that it was great.

Once our two days in Paris was up we took a train and bus ride to Zurich, Switzerland. We were there for only a night, but I was astounded at how clean it was. Then it was off to Davos! 

That night was the first portion of the conference. All the attending students gathered in the main hall, and were sorted into groups of eight. These groups would last for the rest of the conference and we would have to come up with, and present, an idea for changing education at the end of the summit. That fist night was fun, I got to meet new people and dance a little bit, which is alway a plus. I also was briefed on my Sir Ken intro. I was scheduled to introduce him first thing the next morning, the first full day of the summit. 

I was both excited and nervous. The next morning I put on my best dress and went to the conference hall before all the other students were scheduled to arrive. I was given a microphone, shown the stage, and briefed on the timing of my speech. There would be a couple short talks before mine, just the administrative staff giving the schedule for the day, and then I would speak.

After my briefing I was shown backstage where I actually got to meet Sir Ken! He was hilarious, much funnier in person than in his talks. Just constantly cracking jokes and pulling out one liners. I told him who I was and he thanked me for introducing him. It was such and honor to even shake his hand, let alone having him thank me!

Then I was ushered out and shown my seat in the front row. I watched the other talks and then it was my time to go on stage... I was nervous, to say the least. Having never really spoken in front of a large crow before I was suddenly speaking in front of 1,500 people. I got it though. I talked about my connection with Sir Ken, my path through high school, and my art. 

After my intro I stepped off the stage and watched Sir Ken's talk. He was funny as usual, taking about heavy issues with the tone of a comedian, and to my astonishment he referenced my intro and me about five times! To have him remember what I had said and to think it was worthy of pointing out later was the greatest honor I could imagine! It was a truly magical morning. 

Once the talks were over, I got up to leave with every one else, but found that many of the EF executives and guest speakers around me wanted to congratulate me on my performance and a few even gave me their cards! I was almost late for my first workshop with my group! 

My group was pretty responsive to the various tasks we were given and came up with some very good ideas. Our final idea was an app which, in the theoretical school environment we thought of, would allow the student to learn what they really wanted to, at their own pace and time schedule. In a way, the app we are creating is based on my notions that subjects should not be kept separate. At one point during the Innovation Village, Lauri Järvilehto (creator of Angry Birds) came over to our table, and after we explained our idea he immediately asked for our contact information so he could help us make our prototype a reality. His interest not only astounded me, but also my team. We learned that our ideas were valuable and could make a difference. 

The whole weekend people came up to me; people I’d never met, and said I did an amazing job, adults even, not just students. The film crew that interviewed me actually thanked me for being there and said I was an inspiration. People even asked me for advice on a few occasions, legitimately wanting to know my opinion. It all just blew me away because I’ve never had that kind of validation. I’m not saying any of this to brag, I’m just genuinely astounded by the impact I had. This summit, and the important and amazing people I got to meet made me realize that I can change things, that I can impact the world and help others, instead of just thinking about it. 

My trip to Europe with EF was truly life changing... I will never forget the people I met and the experiences I had, never.