Quest Scholarship Fund

Front row: Stacy Vilsaint (Lift for Life Academy), Jasmine Whitley (East St. Louis SIUE Charter School), Tracy Vilsaint (Lift for Life Academy). Back row: Domonic Archie Jr. (Vashon High School), Nate  Lowery (Central Visual and Performing Arts High School), Malike Harris (University City High School).

The Quest Scholarship Fund, a nonprofit that got its start in St. Louis last year by funding one student to travel abroad, has now expanded dramatically.

The program, which partners with AFS-USA to send students from marginalized backgrounds to study in foreign countries for free, has moved from funding just one student to providing international travel to six students. Quest fundraises for half the cost of the students’ travel, while the AFS-USA Faces of America national study abroad program pays the other half, as part of an attempt to make study abroad more diverse by making it more accessible.

“We’ve expanded to many new schools,” said Suzanne Sebert, founder of the Quest Scholarship Fund. “We’ve gone from one student to six students, and hope to go to 10 or 12 this next year. Having six, now it’s like an event. With one, that was where we started. But with six – it’s a program.”

The six students who studied abroad this summer come from Vashon High School, Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, Lift for Life Academy, University City High School, and SIUE East Saint Louis Charter High School. They chose a wide range of destinations for their summer study-abroad trips. One student chose to travel to Ghana, one went to Finland, two chose to travel to Italy, and two students went to Costa Rica.

Sebert hopes that these journeys won’t just help the individual students, but will help widen the cultural lens of those students’ entire communities.

“The students go, for the most part, after their junior year, so they will come home and share everything with their high schools,” Sebert said. “Most of them are already on Snapchat, and WhatsApp, and are sharing things. It’s fun to let their friends become part of the experience and part of the cultural growth, too.”

Now more than ever, Sebert believes that facilitating these connections between different people and different communities matters.

“I think it’s tremendously important that people get to know each other as human beings and as friends and see how much they have in common,” Sebert said. “This is a difficult world right now, and there are a lot of misconceptions about people, and I think having students build those bridges is very important.”

Jasmine Whitley, a 17-year-old student at SIUE East St. Louis Charter High School, was one of this year’s cohort of St. Louis-area students. She spent a full month studying abroad in Finland, a country which she chose because it seemed to fit her personality.

“The reason why I chose to [go to Finland] is I thought it was a country that was going to fit me,” said Whitley. “I heard a lot about Finland – I heard they’re pretty down to earth, and quiet, and sweet, just like me. I don’t hear much about Finland, but I thought it would be a good country to learn their culture, and the things that they like to do.”

For Whitley, and all but one of the other Quest students, this was a first-ever trip outside the country and a critical educational opportunity.

“I think it’s important, because I feel like some people, they should be able to learn from not only what they’ve been around all their lives, but to just go out and explore different things,” Whitley said.

“To not just hear about what other people think, but to actually learn from those people who live in those countries. I’ve never been nowhere. I’ve never traveled, the only place I’ve been is where I live. So that will be really important to me.”

Domonic Archie Jr., a 15-year-old student at Vashon High School, was both the youngest of the group and the only one who had traveled outside the United States before. He previously visited Costa Rica as part of his school’s Show Me Costa Rica program and fell in love with the country. He used his Quest scholarship to do community service on a Costa Rican organic farm, staying with a Costa Rican family.

“It’s important to me, because when I grow older, I want to at least have some experience, you know?” Archie said. “I want to inspire other kids to take on journeys such as this, because these are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I plan on minoring in Spanish in college, I plan on visiting a lot of Spanish-speaking countries afterwards, so I can become fluent and I can grow to love their culture. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking about becoming a doctor overseas, you know? Being a doctor abroad.” 

These six students got the chance to live and study in a foreign country before they even graduated from high school. Some of the most important new connections were forged between the six students themselves.

“They’re bonded like the six musketeers, let me tell you,” Sebert said. “One of them said, ‘You know, a lot of our friends won’t understand, when we come back, what we’ve experienced –but we will understand each other.’ That’s been a good strength, because a lot of them don’t have easy school situations, but they have each other.”

And next year, the group of St. Louis students with access to that experience will grow. Teachers and counselors in public schools where over 75 percent of the student population is on free and reduced lunch may nominate their students for this program for next year, and Sebert hopes to expand the program as much as money will allow

For more information, visit www.qsfstl.org or call 314-588-8200 .

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