Sophomores relive history

HOWLAND — For the first time, Howland High School students took part in the history immersion experience Sojourn to the Past.

Sophomores Jenna Gebhardt, 16, and Brandon Summerlin, 16, took the trip March 29 to April 5 with 10 Youngstown high school students as part of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past. The dozen area students planned to visit Civil Rights sites across the south with other students from across the country.

“It is a one in a million chance, we will never get to do this again. For some reason, I guess they just wanted to reach out to us this year, which we’re thankful for,” Gebhardt said several weeks prior to the trip.

As a history immersion classroom, the students were to complete reading and writing assignments, meet with Civil Rights Movement participants like Congressman John Lewis and Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine as they visited sites in Atlanta, Montgomery, Birmingham, Little Rock and Memphis, among others.

The students also planned to meet Minnijean Brown Trickey, also of the Little Rock Nine, who visited Howland Schools this fall and spoke to students during Nonviolence Week, which is usually in early October.

“It sets them up for success because they realize no matter whether they’re excellent students or average students, there’s something that each one of them can give, and it lets them know that ordinary people are able to do great things,” said Penny Wells, Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past director and retired Youngstown history teacher.

Gebhardt and Summerlin have been working with Wells since November to prepare for the journey. They are responsible for making up missed school assignments while they are gone and will receive a high school history credit from the trip.

Sojourn to the Past teaches participants about the Civil Rights Movement and its principles of nonviolence, civic responsibility and not being a silent witness, and gives them a chance to bring those principles to their communities through an action plan developed during the trip.

“We’re going more into an area of history that we talk about for two days and then we just skip over. We’re going more in depth during this trip than we’ll ever go and it’s a different chance to learn what we would never learn before,” Summerlin said.

Sojourn to the Past is a California-based nonprofit founded by Jeff Steinberg in 1999, with the mission of educating students about social justice and empowering them to become leaders in their communities. In 2007 — one year after meeting Steinberg — Wells founded Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, a non-profit with the mission of helping students expand their learning.

Over the past 14 years, Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past has worked on voter registration and education, in addition to creating Nonviolence Week, which was created through Ohio Senate Bill 38 in 2013.Wells brings approximately a dozen high school students with her each year to Sojourn to the Past. She likes to bring sophomores because she expects these students to give back to their communities and this gives them more time to get involved and to give back. However, she has brought students from other grades.

“It’s empowered students, it’s given them the opportunity to find their voice, to not be silent witnesses,” said Wells. “And I’ve loved watching these students mature and become good speakers and being able to find ways of sharing their knowledge.”

Summerlin and Gebhardt were selected randomly out of a pool of students nominated by eighth-grade history teachers based on academic performance.

“This is such an important and exciting opportunity for these two fine students. We appreciate their integrity and interest to travel south to participate in Sojourn to the Past, and anticipate valuable insight from this life-changing experience upon their return. They will be instrumental in bringing to light to their peers and our schools the importance of justice, equality and nonviolence practices. It is their innate leadership skills, compassion, understanding and interest in equity that make Jenna and Brandon the ideal candidates for this important journey,” Howland Superintendent Kevin Spicher said before the students left.

Gebhardt plays soccer and is a member of Interact Club, which is the high school equivalent of Rotary International. Summerlin plays football and is on the track team.

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