Staff Member Spotlight: Jeff Sharpe

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Jeff has a BA from Bucknell University and an MA from Dartmouth College, where his thesis research focused on globalization’s impact on water resource management in developing countries using Ecuador as a case study. Jeff is a former Division I swimmer and an avid skier and whitewater kayaker. He enjoys adventure travel, playing guitar, following the latest news in politics, and environmental conservation advocacy. Jeff is the Executive Director and a Board Member of Sustainable Learning Inc.

What position do you hold at Sustainable Summer? What has been your career path so far?

I am the Co-Founder/Director. I’ve worked in the education and/or educational travel industry my entire career (13 years). Most of my professional experience has been with start-ups as a founder or principal. Sustainable Summer is the first non-profit venture I’ve founded, and also the one that most closely combines my three passions: travel, the environment, and entrepreneurship.

Did YOU study abroad in high school?! If so, where and what inspired you to go?

I suppose that depends how you define “study abroad.” I did several service trips through my youth group to places like Puerto Rico and St. Thomas (as well as service trips in the US to Appalachia and elsewhere). I also went to France one summer with a group from my high school. France was kind of silly and pointless in retrospect. I’m not that into European travel now and probably didn’t realize it back then, but I was studying French in high school (also a mistake – Spanish is so much more useful) and the opportunity to travel was there, so why not?

The service trips were more interesting for me, and my desire to engage in “voluntourism” probably stemmed from some ill-conceived notion that that type of service work makes a meaningful difference in other people’s lives. It doesn’t really, at least not in any long-term, significant way. It’s much more beneficial to the “giver” than the “receiver.”

What does the future hold for Sustainable Summer - any exciting new programs to share?

We’re a fairly young organization, so we’re currently focused on getting all the little stuff right before we take on the world, so to speak. In the travel industry, the broad strokes are really easy, but it’s the details that set great organizations apart. We’re focused on delivering really outstanding value to our students and a truly unique educational experience, so we’re concentrating most of our efforts on making our existing programs amazing, before we add new programs.

This is all the more challenging because we have more complex itineraries and logistics than the typical travel program, and a very nuanced curriculum. Plus, we don’t subcontract for services. All of our programs have been developed from extensive on-the-ground research by our founders. Case in point: I’m writing these interview responses from Ecuador, where I’m wrapping up yet another trip to meet with our local partners – my third in the last 12 months.

What about the future of the high school study abroad industry? How do you think international education will change over the next 10 years?

I think we’re on the cutting edge of the trend that is going to replace “service learning” as the dominant category for student travel to developing countries. I’m not entirely sure what semantic label will eventually be applied to what we’re doing at Sustainable Summer – we call it “environmental leadership programs” - but I think students and parents are becoming increasingly aware of topics like global climate change and food justice. I think a gradual shift will happen (or is happening) away from service learning towards travel programs with more of a pure educational focus in these subject areas.

Just look at the growth of WWOOFing among the adult population – that will trickle down to the high school demographic over time. Though the high school demographic is especially interesting in this area of travel, because progressive secondary schools are starting to integrate sustainability into their curricula in really meaningful ways, and just about every university is now offering some type of study abroad experience for students interested in environmental science and related fields; but in the high school abroad industry, there’s really no one else that’s doing what we’re doing, at least not as an open enrollment program. However, give it 10 years and perhaps “environmental leadership” will be as commonplace a term as “service learning.”