Welcome to the Jungle

Teenagers get a bad rap—double if they're teenage girls. Just ask around. Their music is bad. They thrive on gossip. They have no sense of the world outside of their iPods and Facebook profiles.

But if that were really true, the Traveling School wouldn’t exist.

Started in 2000, the Traveling School is a nonprofit school based in Bozeman. Girls from all over the United States spend a semester exploring overseas while earning full academic credit, completing service projects, developing outdoor and leadership skills, and gaining a unique sense of self-awareness and discovery. The school's 14th group leaves for southern Africa in September, and three local girls are joining the group.

“The classes at the Traveling School were so much harder than my classes back home,” says Charlotte Nickel, 18, of Missoula, who is a graduate of the program. “We had classes everywhere. Even inside a tent during a rainstorm on a multiday hike in the Andes!”

Leaving the surroundings of typical teenage life seems to be one of the most poignant aspects of the program for the girls, who temporarily leave the halls of Bozeman High or Park High in Livingston in pursuit of an unknown adventure in Africa or Latin America. The Traveling School allows each girl to only bring a backpack, three shirts, no make-up, and a big heart.

“In Zululand we went to an orphanage and we hung out with the kids all day long. At the end of the day, instead of feeling guilty for leaving all of the orphans, I felt inspired and grateful for everything I have,” says Bozeman High junior KD Winters, 16, who spent the fall semester of her sophomore year in southern Africa.

And in the midst of the adventure, the girls have classes, lessons, and exams.

When they get home, people ask, “How was your trip?” Grace Stopher, 18, of Eugene, Oregon, explains in her blog, “I don't know how to tell people not to call it a trip, because it wasn't. It was a phase of my life I spent on another continent, where I learned and experienced a whole other atmosphere of culture, self-exploration, and self-expression in the company of 17 women. Three and a half months is not a trip. It was not a vacation. I tell people I went to the Galapagos, and they're like, ‘Oh my gooooosh! Was it, like, totally tropical? So relaxing I bet.’ No. I studied while I was in the Galapagos Islands.”

Although the girls come from schools all over the United States, a fifth are from Montana. Of that 20%, over 80% of the local girls receive scholarship assistance. They want to do something different with their high school careers—they really want to make a difference. And being from Montana can make the experience even more poignant.

Greta Robison, 18, a senior at Bozeman High, returned from a semester in Central America in May and said, “I’m working on helping people understand that we helped students in El Salvador swim across Class-III rapids to get to school. It’s hard to believe that people here complain about taking the bus.”

During a traditional ceremony, a Zulu teenage boy attempted to court Bonnie Bakwin, 22, of Bozeman, in traditional African fashion. He quietly asked her teacher for Bonnie’s father’s address because he wanted to give her father a cow as the first step in establishing a bride price. Bonnie didn’t know how to respond. “I didn’t need any more cows because my dad has 500!”