Eudora eighth-grader gets bite of foreign culture
Probably not unlike many upcoming seventh graders, Mason McCurdy has a special collection of coins.
His coins, however, don't have the familiar presidential faces. Mason collected his coins as souvenirs from his trip to Fiji and New Zealand.
"They have a $1 coin and a $2 coin," Mason said of his New Zealand coins, some of which are on loan to his brother. "Fiji has the same thing. They even have a 2-cent coin."
Mason traveled to the South Pacific as a student ambassador through a People to People International program that arranges for middle and high school students to travel foreign soil.
Mason's trip, which began June 16 and ended June 30, included the longest flight Mason ever experienced 8,000 miles between New Zealand and California and 6,000 between the state and Fiji. Before this summer, he'd been as far as Orlando, Fla.
"Over the ocean you think it's never going to end," he said.
Once he finally got there, Mason's tours of the countries were highlighted by meeting a New Zealand town mayor, driving a special kind of boat and playing rugby with the native New Zealanders.
"It's fun when I'm the tallest kid there," he said.
Mason said his parents financed about half of the $3,800 trip, leaving him to earn a little less than $2,000 through scholarships from people and businesses.
The student ambassador trips have an educational and cultural focus, said Andrea White, director of student programs at the People to People International headquarters in Kansas City, Mo. President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded People to People in 1956.
People to People has programs for students, athletes and professionals. Vice President Susannah Cornelius, who oversees student and sport programs at headquarters in Spokane, Wash., said the trip includes arranged activities to spark interaction between United States students and their cross-cultural peers.
"That will allow the students to get to know each other on another level," Cornelius said. "They find people have more similarities than differences."
People to People chooses the more than 25 countries involved in the program by considering what countries students learn about in school and those that have good local People to People organizations.
Students gain an advantage by attending, Cornelius said, aside from potential to earn high school and college credit.
"Sometimes this really helps to set them apart as they're applying for colleges and scholarships," she said. "The students gain greater maturity."
Mason had to do more than sign up and pay the bill. Students who wish to participate must provide letters of recommendation and go through a personal interview.
Mason said he thought the organization looked for well-rounded students. His activities include band, choir, basketball and soccer.
Although his vacation pictures reflect the dances and artistic traditions of the Maori, New Zealand's original inhabitants, and Fijian villages with thatched roof buildings amidst palm trees, cultural confusion contributed to the experience as well.
Mason said that understanding Fiji residents speak and using "military time" proved difficult. The clock dictated that Mason and the rest of the student ambassadors, from the Kansas City metro area, be up for a 6 a.m. breakfast every day.
Food proved to be an area of confusion, too. Like the famous "Pulp Fiction" scene where characters ponder France's Royal Burger, Mason recalled how the McDonald's delicacy, the Quarter Pounder, is a Kiwi Burger to New Zealanders.
It wasn't a burger but a condiment that stuck in Mason's throat. Although the popular condiment Vegamite is made by Kraft, it's no Macaroni and Cheese.
"Our friend dared me to stick my finger in it," he said. "I stuck it in my mouth. You really want to throw it up. But then I got used to it."
Despite a run-in with unusual condiments, Mason said he's game to give it another shot as a student ambassador, maybe for the 2003 trip that includes a stint in South Wales or the 24-day Mediterranean Adventure when he's older.
"I've heard about it," he said. "It sounds really fun."