by Arnav Harve, Staff Writer, November 2021

One of the highlights of many students’ experiences at Nobles is taking EXCEL (Experiential and Community Engaged Learning) trips: travel experiences across the world, often with an added service component. However, due to COVID-19, these trips have not happened for the last two years. Now, as vaccination rates increase across the country, the administration recently announced that all domestic trips are available for 2022. How did the administration come to this decision?

According to Director of EXCEL Ben Snyder, COVID-19 challenged the feasibility of EXCEL trips in three different ways. The first is that the risks that come with traveling during the pandemic extend far beyond becoming sick with the disease itself. Snyder explained that one particularly important factor he considered when choosing EXCEL trips to run is whether there are hospital beds available if someone gets hurt badly on a trip. Recent COVID-19 spikes in many parts of the world have left hospitals overburdened with patients, so Snyder explained that if any such medical emergency were to happen on a trip, he would have to be confident that hospitals could handle it. 

Another critical facet of pandemic complications for EXCEL trips is COVID-19 testing. All international travelers are required to get tested before leaving the country, and those that have contracted the disease are required to quarantine. Snyder said, “Let’s say we’re on an international trip, we are about to board the plane, and somebody tests positive for COVID-19. I can’t leave [them] to quarantine for ten days; somebody has to stay. […] Can we reasonably ask a teacher who just gave up a week or two of their vacation time [to stay with them]?” This complication played a key role in their decision to limit international trips. One final difficulty in conducting trips during this time is dealing with expectations and restrictions put in place by the school’s partner organizations, such as Camp Sunshine and RV-United.

Both Elena Guerra (Class I) and Norah Jankey (Class I) were planning to go on international EXCEL trips when the pandemic struck. Both of them would have been excited to travel had their trips not been canceled. Simon Juknelis (Class III) echoed these sentiments, but also expressed reservations about traveling internationally. “I wouldn’t be worried about getting COVID-19. I would just be worried about getting let back in [to the country],” Juknelis said.

Another important aspect of the cancellations of the past two years is the change in how students obtain community service hours. Students have long used EXCEL trips to gain hours: according to Snyder, they make up approximately one third of all service hours that students earn, with the other two thirds representing the Community Service afternoon program and independent service work. Though hours are now harder to get your hands on, Snyder points to the data from the Class of 2021, which had an average of 130 hours per student, far above the 80 hours requirement. Snyder said, “People had to be proactive, maybe a little bit more creative, a little bit more determined, and not necessarily assume that it’s [community service] going to get done on an EXCEL trip.” He also explained that while the experiences gained on trips are incredibly powerful, so is working at your local tutoring center.

Students have found that the pandemic has actually helped them more easily find accessible opportunities for community service. “You could just go online and sign up to do IFSI (Immigrant Family Services Institute). […] It [the pandemic] might have actually made it easier to find opportunities,” Guerra said. Both she and Jankey have gained the majority of their service hours during the pandemic, through activities like tutoring at IFSI and the Ohrenberger School. They also explained that while they don’t have all their service hours completed, the main reason they want to go on EXCEL trips is for the incredible experience. Jankey added, “[EXCEL trips] were never going to be an integral part of completing my hours.”

By the time they graduate, over 75 to 80 percent of students have taken an EXCEL trip or spent a semester away. These statistics speak to the crucial role of the program at Nobles, and show just how impactful the EXCEL trip cancellations have been upon students in the last two years. Snyder is hopeful that as COVID-19 begins its decline across the world, more EXCEL trips will become available.