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Quaker Valley junior bound for Tanzanian adventure

Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Quaker Valley junior Tessa Houser poses for a photo at Wolcott park in Sewickley on Thursday, May 29, 2014. Houser was one of four Pittsburgh-area students selected to perform service work abroad this summer. Houser will be visiting Tanzania.

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By Larissa Dudkiewicz
Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The last time Tessa Houser traveled out of the country, she was 6 years old and accompanied by her parents. On June 29, the 16-year-old will travel alone to Tanzania, Africa, where she will spend a few weeks as part of the Global Travel Scholarship Program.

A junior at Quaker Valley, Houser is one of only five Pittsburgh-area student scholars selected from a pool of 35 nominees to participate in the program through the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh in cooperation with The Experiment in International Living.

“I'm a little nervous,” Houser said, “but at the same time, I'm just excited to throw myself out there and give everything I have to the program.”

Established in 2004, the scholarship program gives high school juniors who ordinarily wouldn't have the chance an opportunity to leave behind the comforts of home and experience firsthand the joys and challenges of living in a foreign country. The five scholars will spend three to five weeks living abroad with financial support from regional foundations, corporations and individuals.

This year's selection process was especially rigorous, according to the World Affairs Council, because each participating school only was able to nominate one candidate.

Houser decided to apply after learning about the travel scholarship in the fall from Susan McCauley, who coordinates the Global Studies Initiative at the high school.

McCauley said Houser is the first Quaker Valley student to be chosen for the experience.

She said Houser makes a great candidate because she knows the world is full of commonalities and differences, and she respects both.

“Houser is very mature and Houser has the intrinsic desire to learn more about other people, their culture and their nation,” McCauley said. “That's what makes her an excellent candidate for this.”

As a freshman, Houser joined Global Studies, which challenges students in ninth through 12th grades to look beyond the traditional constraints of borders, geographical locations, language and cultural understanding.

A Girl Scout for years, Houser said she was raised to always look for opportunities to give back to the community. She believes her sense of adventure was inherited from her parents, Mark and Diane, who lived in Moscow for a year when they were first married.

“My mom didn't speak the language at all. She learned a couple of Russian words on the plane. Beyond that, she knew nothing. It was their example of showing me, even though things are scary, just throw yourself at it and whatever happens, happens.”

Houser had to list three travel choices on her application and Tanzania was at the top.

“I was very persistent about going to Tanzania because it looked like such a cool experience,” she said.

She will meet her host family when she gets to Tanzania. She'll stay with the first family in the coastal village, where they speak Swahili and a little English. Right after, she'll stay with the Maasai tribe, who also speak Swahili but have their own tribal dialect, she said.

“Very few people get to actually live with them, so I'm very excited.”

Houser, who plans to go to law school, said she always has been into law and politics and sees this as a way to open doors to her future. Her ultimate dream would be to one day set up her own nonprofit organization specializing in women in domestic violence situations.

Houser said the World Affairs Council has helped to prepare participating students for their cultural changes and experiences.

“I feel like I've been prepared enough that I will be able to handle it,” Houser said.

Houser will return as a student ambassador, responsible for writing a reflective essay, sharing her experiences and designing a globally themed project to engage her peers in international affairs issues.

“Students naturally gravitate toward Houser,” McCauley said. “She has a very approachable leadership style, so I think she's going to be an excellent future ambassador when she spreads what she learns from this experience with others both here in Quaker Valley and the community at large.”

Larissa Dudkiewicz is a contributing writerfor Trib Total Media.

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