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This Teacher Hopes to Changes Lives With a New Study Abroad Program for Teens of Color

Tom Vanderbilt

March 7, 2023

Lamar Shambley began to get serious about studying Spanish when he was 13 years old. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, he’d had his share of Spanish classes. "But it wasn’t really being able to speak the language," he says. "It was all farm animals and colors and numbers."

He would practice his fledgling grammar in chat rooms with native speakers from around the globe, but his dreams stretched further. "I just thought it would be really cool to travel to those places," he says. The actuality of doing that, however, seemed impossibly distant.

A few years later, as a student at Virginia’s William & Mary, he was accepted to a public health program in the Dominican Republic. There was just one problem. "I told my professor, 'I don’t have a passport — no one in my family has every traveled outside of the country.'" The professor said he would take care of it. And so, Shambley joined the mission. "I got to do translation work, ethnographic work, and actually use the language, whereas in school I sat behind a desk and conjugated verbs."

The experience resonated with him. A few years later, now working as a Spanish teacher in Brooklyn at a charter school called Brooklyn Ascend, he wanted to give students "that looked like him" the opportunity to become, as he puts it, a "global citizen."

With funding from a variety of institutions — from Ascend to the Pincus Family Foundation — Shambley, an honoree in Travel + Leisure's 2023 Global Visions Awards, founded Teens of Color Abroad. The acronym, TOCA, is by design. "I thought of the Spanish word tocar, which means to touch," he says. "And thinking of TOCA as a cultural touch, knowing our students would learn about these new places and this language, and that they would also share their language and culture."

Lamar Shambley (far right) in Seville, Spain, with a Teens of Color Abroad group. PHOTO: COURTESY OF LAMAR SHAMBLEY

Last summer, Shambley led a group of 12 students on a two-week language program in Seville. "Some of my students hadn’t been on an airplane before, and some haven’t been to Manhattan," he says. "It was an eye-opening experience for them." His students, he says, were suddenly looking at the world in all kinds of new ways. "We had a flamenco dance class, and the boys weren’t really into it," he says. In Spain, he took them to see a flamenco performance. "One kid said, 'Mr. Shambley, that really moved me. The guy was really powerful,'" he adds.

For this year’s program, he’s adding new components, including a storytelling project (in the form of a podcast), so students can translate their experiences to others. While it began simply to spread Shambley’s love of language, learning, and travel, he wants TOCA to help prepare students for life. He says, "We want to give students the skills they need for college, and hopefully inspire them to look for opportunities at college — and beyond."

The Travel + Leisure Global Vision Awards aim to identify and honor companies, individuals, destinations, and organizations taking strides to develop more sustainable and responsible travel products, practices, and experiences. Not only are they demonstrating thought leadership and creative problem-solving, they are taking actionable, quantifiable steps to protect communities and environments around the world. What's more, they are inspiring their industry colleagues and travelers to do their part.

Lamar and Brooklyn Ascend High School students were also featured on Pix11 news. Watch the video here.


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