Mary Claire Kasunic is the president of Oakland Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, PA. She joined the faculty of Oakland Catholic in 1992 as a French teacher and took her first group of students abroad in 1995. In August 2016, she came to the ACIS Boston Office to join our Young Women’s and Youth Leadership Advisory Board which advised ACIS’ efforts in building our new set of educational tours focused on leadership in the Dominican Republic and Italy. The group sought to identify key characteristics and values our new set of educational tours hoped to engender in young people.
This summer, Mary Claire traveled to Italy with a group of her students to experience the Young Women’s Leadership Itinerary for the first time. We interviewed Mary Claire about her experience, the impact it had on her students, and what she would share other educators considering the program in the future:
When ACIS first reached out to you to help design a Young Women’s Leadership program, what interested you in getting involved with the project?
During my years as a faculty member of the Foreign Languages Department at Oakland Catholic High School for girls, I had traveled several times with ACIS and was always impressed with their tours, customer service, and the company’s overall philosophy and organization. In my more recent role as President of the school, I recognized that our faculty, students, and the overall program had gone beyond the need to simply expose our students to a broader world via travel, but complement a mission statement that encompasses a global focus with a more expanded notion of the traditional student tour.
The request from ACIS to assist them in developing a new kind of leadership tour came at the perfect juncture of how we were evolving as an all girls’ value-based high school. Although there has been a proliferation of “service-tours” for students in the last decade, ACIS delved deeper into the notion of global competence and the formation of global citizenship and leadership to create this particular set of tours. I was honored to be part of the process initiated by ACIS to create a leadership tour for young women with a goal of providing experiences whose impact will foster awareness, critical analysis, thoughtful comparison, a broader sense of responsibility, and leadership development.
What was it like collaborating with the ACIS team as well as other educators from across the country to help design this program? What were the highlights of that experience for you?
The ACIS team is impressive from start to finish. Their serious consideration and respect for the educator’s perspective and experienced group leaders’ insight into the students they teach brought about authentic and honest collaboration, which produced a better tour in my opinion. The opportunity to participate on an Advisory Council with educators and school leaders from different parts of the nation was also an enlightening opportunity. To me, the overall enthusiasm and professionalism of the ACIS staff members who conceived the original concept and the manner in which they coordinated and engaged members of the Advisory Council in phone conversations, an all-day work session in Boston, in follow-up email communications, and a weekend leadership conference were all highlights of the collaboration.
What did you hope your students would take away from a trip like this one?
As on any trip abroad with students, my primary goals are for students to return with a positive attitude toward travel and a broader perspective of our world, one that doesn’t necessarily shatter their perceptions of the world as they have known it, but expands their views. For this particular trip, I also hoped to grow their knowledge and appreciation of female leadership in another part of the world – how it is developing, the challenges it faces, and how gender equity is approached and managed.
How was the trip? What were the highlights for you and your students?
There were so many! And perhaps that alone is a highlight of the tour – the diverse array of presentations and perspectives of Italy. Meeting with a 34-year-old female engineer-turned-mayor of a municipality of boroughs in Tuscany made a lasting impression on the students – her candor, her competence, her approachability. Listening to two different university lecturers speak about the role of women in the Catholic Church and the 30% Club’s work with corporations around Italy offered very different, but more academic, perspectives. Learning about the Donne in Campo initiative from women running their own farms and having a pasta-making lesson as we were surrounded by the beauty of the Tuscany region was unforgettable!
That’s not to minimize the energy shared by our American students and young Italian Girl Scouts as they fumbled through conversations laced with both Italian and English, or the impact of the personal stories of the migrant women forging a new life for them and their families in a different country, or the privilege of meeting with a member of the Italian Parliament and then watching the Parliament in session! Like I said, the highlights were daily and numerous. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that our tour guide herself, Teresa Poeta, served as a constant example of strong female leadership in a young woman who was poised, knowledgeable, competent, and keenly adept at engaging both students and group leaders in an ongoing dialogue that focused on the core concept of the tour.
How did the trip measure up to your expectations? What did you think would be the most impactful aspects of the itinerary and how did that measure up in the end?
The trip actually surpassed my expectations with regard to the quality and variety of presentations/workshops incorporated into the packed schedule. I remain duly impressed with the relationships that ACIS has built over the years in the countries to which they send tours that they were able to procure such high-quality participants for the presentations. I am also grateful that ACIS remained cognizant of the need to permit time for more traditional touring of Rome, Florence, Siena, Tuscany, Pisa, and Milan. There was not a minute to spare on this trip, but this was something for which we had prepared our students and not a single one was disappointed. The personal presentations of the migrant women, the young mayor of the Tuscany borough, the private audience with MP Anna Maria Carloni, and the evening with the Italian girl scouts will probably leave the greatest impression on our students with regard to the changing roles and faces of female leadership in Italy.
Having helped design the trip and having been on the trip yourself, who would you describe as the ideal target audience for a trip like this?
This is a trip designed for female students and group leaders who are ready to not just explore an area but actively engage with the culture, people, ideas, beliefs, and current trends of the country they visit. We limited our group size to 15 since we understood that there would be at least one other school accompanying us. (One of the tour’s goals was to encourage students to interact with other students on the tour and not just within the comfort zone of their own school’s group.) That required an application which allowed us to understand the motivation of an applicant to participate in this tour. This is not a tour for the fainthearted or students who really just want to try the food and see the sites.
Students need to prepare by reading up on the presenters and topics planned for the trip. They need to learn at least some basics in the language and be comfortable being forced to use the language. They need to have an appreciation for the time being dedicated to them and be prepared to remain attentive and have intelligent questions ready at the end of the presentation. Group leaders too, need to understand that their role as the facilitator of a YWL trip is to provide students with appropriate articles or websites that will inform them about the country and the topics to be presented. They can assist in how to frame questions or develop questions by fostering conversations prior to the tour, en route to presentations, or after a workshop by continuing the dialogue.
This is a tour for designed for the students, so it is they who should pose the questions, but the topics are current and relevant, and it is the role of the group leader to ensure that the energy of the group is maintained by keeping the thoughtful reflection going through conversation, sharing of insight, and drawing comparisons. We accepted only 10th and 11th graders for this tour because we knew that a certain level of maturity would be required and one of our requirements of each tour participant from our school is to make a formal presentation to fellow students or parents/students the following school year so that the knowledge and perspectives gained from the tour are integrated into their academic studies.
What message would you offer to other educators looking for a leadership oriented travel program?
This is the easiest question to answer, and will be my shortest: Educators seeking a high-quality leadership oriented travel program should look no further than ACIS!
Anything else you’d like to add?
I know that I am verbose, so I’m sure I’ve said plenty:) If an educator interested in this tour wants to ask me something that I haven’t covered, they should reach out to me via ACIS and I will be happy to connect with them personally.
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