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Students have roots in Bellevue, but hearts abroad

Hailee Donoghue may have only understood every 10th word between her and her host family of Sacred Valley, Peru, but between gesturing and her limited Spanish, she managed to scratch together a vague understanding. Family dinners in the little village, close to the Inca capital of Cusco and below the ancient city of Machu Picchu, quickly became her favorite part of the day.

“That trip definitely had a strong impact on my life,” said Donoghue, then a sophomore at Bellevue High. “It solidified ideas I had, and was very powerful and eye-opening.”

Donoghue's trip to Peru through Walking Tree Travel, a national organization that sponsors high school trips abroad, was her first time overseas. Now an undergrad at UC Berkeley, Donoghue says the month-long exchange has challenged her world view, inspired her current academic track and made her eager to globe trot again. A Latin American Studies major, Donoghue will spend six months in Buenos Aires next year and six weeks in Guatemala, studying education in a rural village.

“It was very nerve-racking at first,” said Peter Tian, then a student at Interlake High School, who went to Cost Rica under a similar Walking Tree program. Though he'd been to Canada and China before, he'd never traveled extensively. “After coming home, I realized I wanted to see the world, and I realized that there are so many people on earth, so many cultures and customs, and yet we all share the same set of values and humanity.”

Many students go abroad in college, but for Donoghue and Tian, traveling at such a young age – while their peers spent their summers in sports camps or seasonal jobs – grew their world views. Tian can remember playing soccer with the children of his homestay village and repairing a greenhouse just outside the community. Now a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he recently applied to study abroad in Beijing and is majoring in global business.

Both Tian and Donoghue agree that these early cross-cultural experiences helped inform their current roles as global citizens.

“When I came home I just remember...feeling that I'd had this life-changing experience,” said Donoghue who, in addition to her homestay, helped build a cafeteria for an all-girls school outside the village. “It gave a lot of purpose to my life at such a young age.”

Walking trees are giant, husky hardwoods, native to rainforests in Central and South America, whose roots grow outside the soil, ever-reaching toward sources of sun and water.

"The name Walking Tree is emblematic of our philosophy of travel and cultural exploration,” reads the organization website. “[It] reflects our goal to establish strong connections in the host country while continuing to search for a meaningful and positive role in our global community.”

Walking Tree offers service programs in seven different countries in Central America, Africa and Asia with projects ranging from micro-finance support to reforestation campaigns. Neither Tian nor Donoghue is sure about future careers, but both know that while their roots may be in Bellevue, a part of their hearts is still abroad.“That trip really set me on the road to where I'm going now,” says Donoghue.

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