When Maria and her fellow high school sophomore students from Los Angeles arrived at HI Monterey hostel in Northern California, they were nervous and excited. They got a tour of the kitchen where they’d be making meals and of the spacious, nautical-themed common room with the ping pong table. “The mural of flags made us feel welcomed,” she recalls.
The group was from the Neighborhood Youth Association, a community organization based in Venice, California that offers after-school programming for at-risk youth. The program is open to kids from first through 12th grade, offering students everything from homework help and leadership building, to yoga and robotics classes. Alex Halpern is the college coordinator, and every year, she travels with high school students to Northern California as part of the college preparation program.
“A couple of years ago a donor who had been to one of our events was a board member at HI USA and talked to the students about hostelling and the importance of travel,” Alex says. That’s when she heard about the Great Hostel Give Back, HI USA’s annual program that offers groups of six or more people free stays at hostels around the country in exchange for their time volunteering in the surrounding community. “It made a lot of sense for us to connect with another non-profit like HI USA because we’re always looking for programs that don’t require a lot of money.”
Alex wanted to take her students on college tours so they could get the opportunity to visit campuses outside of Los Angeles. “I think when you’re confined by your neighborhood you don’t have the freedom and space to reach your full potential and be who you can be,” she adds.
Many of the students who are involved at NYA are the first in their families to even consider the possibility of going to college, so for most of them, the process of seeking out and applying to colleges is more daunting than usual. The students had been to some local campuses, but many had never left their neighborhoods before, let alone thought about leaving for college. So, Alex saw an opportunity in traveling to HI USA hostels where the students could stay for free and volunteer in the community while also using the time to explore college campuses in San Francisco and the Monterey Bay area.
“I always knew I wanted to complete high school, but I never thought college was an option for me because of money and because I’m an undocumented student,” Maria says. During the trip to Monterey, Maria and her friends visited the University of California Santa Cruz and California State University Monterey Bay. Along with the campus tours, they got to explore Monterey, volunteer at a beach clean up, and spend evenings in the hostel making dinners and playing ping pong. After the trip, Maria ended up applying to UC Santa Cruz, and is now a student there studying Human Biology and Science. Maria credits Alex and the NYA programs for her decision to apply to college and for helping her have the confidence to live away from home for a while.
“A majority of the students have ended up going to the schools we visited because they can see themselves there,” Alex says, speaking of the success rate of the program. “I don’t think they would have had the confidence to live in another city had they not been there themselves.”
HI USA’s hostels are the perfect place for the students to experience their new environments while they’re out visiting colleges, Alex adds. They get to share the common spaces with travelers from all over the world, who may also be visiting for the first time, and get a real sense of community with each other and the other guests while making meals together and sharing them with everyone.
A whole new crop of senior students is already looking forward to the trip up to San Francisco for the next college tour. “They love these trips and they talk about them all year,” Alex says. “It’s been a really successful operation and we couldn’t have done it without the Great Hostel Give Back.”
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The Great Hostel Give Back
Find out more about the Great Hostel Give Back and how you and your group of six or more people can stay at HI USA hostels around the country when you volunteer in the surrounding community.