When Tessina Davidson was caring for cheetahs in Africa this year and her sister, Jessica, was salsa dancing in Cuba last year, both were earning college credits.
No, they are not daughters of international diplomats but recent Juneau-Douglas High School grads who, like many of their peers, were not sure what to do with their lives.
"I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do, which is one of the main reasons why I did this program," Tessina said.
For about the same costs of tuition and room and board at a state school, a program known as LEAPYear, run by the New College of California, sends students around the globe to get an education they wouldn't find in a classroom.
Many students return with the confidence to pursue careers they may not otherwise have tried.
Tessina says she is a cat person. Lucky for her, the school sent Tessina to a village near Otjiwarongo, Namibia, that studies ways to preserve the cheetah population.
Farmland expanding into the animal's habitats has led to cheetahs feeding on cattle and land owners shooting the big cats.
The Cheetah Conservation Fund trains dogs to chase cheetahs off the farms without hurting them.
"Most cheetahs are really calm around people," said Tessina, which is why they are drawn to farms.
Jessica was sent to Cuba, also by herself, with only a working knowledge of Spanish.
"I knew 'hola' and 'gracias,'" said Jessica, before she pushed herself to learn the language.
While learning how to dance, she also saw Cuban leader Fidel Castro speak on a national holiday and she talked to residents about their thoughts on a socialist government.
"Their first response was that they were grateful and they like it and it was OK," Jessica said. But deeper conversations revealed concerns about the hardships Cubans endure, she said.
The thought of the girls traveling through some of the world's poorest countries, often alone, first made their mother, Diana Cote, nervous, she said.
After talking to parents of other students who completed the program, Cote felt more comfortable with the idea.
"It's not for everyone," Cote said. "But it's definitely worth exploring."
Students begin their semester in northern California with several weeks of preparation. A normal day may include an hour of yoga and several hours repairing old cabins to learn the basics of constructing homes in villages.
In the first semester, students choose from structured programs in India, Central and South America, and the South Pacific. They can choose to do independent studies after the first semester.
Jessica traveled in India, where she repaired a retreat for orphans and taught English to Tibetan Buddhist monks. She also spent time in a spiritual center where the participants did not speak for a week.
"It became easier after the third day," Jessica said.
The point of the exercise was to focus on inner reflections.
Tessina found herself at an animal rehabilitation center in Bolivia looking after 300 monkeys.
"After the first day of them jumping all over me, I went to a restaurant and I kept looking out of the corner of my eye expecting to see one really jump out," Tessina said.
Tessina also helped coffee bean farmers build a community garden.
"That's another thing I liked about the program. They teach them how to volunteer and work in a community, in addition to just focusing on a career," Cote said.
Jessica will be attending the City College of San Francisco to focus on dance and Tessina will attend the University of Alaska Southeast with the long-term goal to study veterinary medicine.
For more information on the LEAPYear program, call (707) 431-7265 or visit www.leapnow.org
Andrew Petty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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