STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Honoring a legacy, seeing the world and enjoying some ice cream. Meet the Merze Tate Explorers.

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Claire Khabeiry and Natasha Mahoney, world travelers.

Imagine for a moment you’re a high school student. You’ve spent the last several months doing everything you can to raise money for the biggest trip of your life. You’re going to France.

But also: You’ve never been on a long-distance flight.

"I was really scared," says Claire Khabeiry.

"I think I show more emotion," says Natasha Mahonie. "So I  was crying."

Khabeiry and Mahonie are both students at Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, and both long-time members of the Merze Tate Explorers.

This was the first long-distance flight for either Khabeiry or Mahonie. They’re in the plane, headed across the Atlantic. They don’t even get to sit together. Khabeiry is holding her emotions in. Mahonie is letting it all out.  

"I look back," says Khabeiry, "and was like, 'she’s showing the emotion for me.'"

But the thing about a trans-Atlantic flight, there’s plenty of time to settle down. And at the end of it, they were in France, for a month-long stay.

They showed me some of their pictures.

"… random French lady on the phone," Khabeiry says, clicking past one photo from Nice. 

Most of their trip was spent on the southern coast of France, near Nice. They did a lot of walking.

"It was really hot all the time. It was like almost 90," says Khabeiry.

"Even at night," says Mahonie.

"Yep, even at night it was still really hot, and I didn’t cool down ever."

They were in a language program, studying next to other students from all over Europe. The classes were run through an organization called AFS.

They slept in dorms, they learned French, they went swimming in saltwater for the first time, and they ate ice cream – well, gelato really, a lot of gelato.

"Everybody, every day, you’d spend probably all of your Euros there, eating ice cream," says Mahonie.

It was fun, but it was learning too. When they came back home after a month, they found themselves changed.

"We were the different ones," says Khabeiry. "We are the foreigners … it was really different for me to be foreign in a foreign country."

This whole trip for these two young women came about because of a group they joined in Kalamazoo called the Merze Tate Explorers.

Khabeiry and Mahonie were two of the first members.

Sonya Hollins founded the group about eight  years ago.

"You look at yourself differently when you’re somewhere else in the world," Hollins says. "You see other people look at you, and it makes you say, ‘Who really, who am I? And what do I need to do in my future, in my career, to be the kind of person this world needs?’ And that’s what Merze Tate was about."

" ... it made me say, 'Why can't we do that in the 21st century, where there's so many more opportunities?' The world is so much smaller now than in the 1920s. Why can't we get these girls the same opportunities to travel?"

Merze Tate is the woman who’s really behind all of this. Born in 1905, she got her first degree from Western Michigan Teachers College, then became the first African American to graduate from Oxford, then went on to earn a PhD from Harvard. Merze Tate started a travel writing club to help young women see the world.

"This was during the 1920s and 30s," says Hollins. "So for a woman to have that kind of vision at that time, it made me say, 'Why can’t we do that in the 21st century, where there’s so many more opportunities?' The world is so much smaller now than in the 1920s. Why can’t we get these girls the same opportunities to travel?"

For the past eight years this group has been taking trips mostly around Southwest Michigan, with a few trips out of state. This summer, Khabeiry and Mahonie were the first in the group to go overseas.

Hollins says she hopes many more girls will go, starting with four more girls next summer.  

And, for Khabeiry and Mahonie, they’ll be writing about their France trip. Writing is part of the deal with this club. Their story will be out in the annual Girls Can! publication in Kalamazoo, which will be released next Friday, September 11th

To hear my colleague Kyle Norris' story about the Merze Tate Explorers, which aired in 2010, click here (the story includes a short bit from a young Claire Khabeiry).

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.