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Sea change: One-of-a-kind course on WNY history was inspired a world away

Eleven years ago, former Buffalonian Doug Hopkins and his family lived a comfortable, accomplished cookie-cutter life in Connecticut. Doug was a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund and co-founder of their Oceans Program. 

His wife, Kyle, was an actress and singer, but focused on raising their daughters, Eliza and Abigail. Doug was passionate about his job, but always on the road. Between work, play dates, soccer practice and ballet lessons, life was chaotic.

“We were missing something,” said Doug.

“I wanted to have an experience with my family,” added Kyle, “somewhere we could be together and be away from some of the distraction — the crazy, materialistic culture that was happening.”

So in November 2003, after three years of careful planning, Doug and Kyle sold their life on land and took their daughters aboard a 32-foot sailboat, Estrela. Their quest to find that missing piece turned into a 6-½ year odyssey around the world that reached 27 countries.

Kyle, Abigail, and Eliza join Malika (local of Fiji) to do laundry in Kavala Bay, Fiji, 2005.

They traded the stress of a highly scheduled life of lessons, soccer games and play dates for cooking over an open fire and doing laundry in the river. Instead of attending soccer practice on manicured grass lawns, Eliza and Abigail (9 and 6 when they began their trip), played soccer on a dirt field off the shore of Madagascar with local children. Play dates became snorkeling adventures in Tonga and rainforest exploration in Laos.

Abigail snorkeling in Chagos Archipelago, Indian Ocean, 2007.

And in the deepest poverty of Southern Africa came an epiphany for Doug and Kyle, one that eventually led them both to become teachers.

“It was the most terrible poverty,” recalls Doug. “The contrast was so shocking.”  

While the poor lived in cardboard shacks under fragmented roofs, the wealthy lunched within easy sight at a polo club. Open sewers from outhouses ran down the hillsides. Rape was so prevalent that American Peace Corps workers hosted regular self-defense workshops for residents.

Abigail and Eliza at the self-defense workshop in Swakopmund, Namibia, 2008 — led by American Peace Corps workers.

Witnessing these social injustices raised a question: What was the key to Southern Africa’s future?

It was Hebron, a Zulu man who cleaned yachts to support his family, who gave them a clear answer.

“Education, education, education,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “My father had me stop school in sixth grade to watch over the family’s sheep.”

Those words solidified the Hopkins’ new dream: to work together and motivate students to become better global citizens.

“It was so profound, very deep within our souls,” says Kyle. “We saw what education can do around the world, and we saw what happens without it.”

Each experience in their voyage led to that same conclusion, whether it was on land or at sea, aboard their “floating school” where Eliza and Abigail were home-schooled. Education had the power to inspire change.

When they returned Buffalo in 2010, they both began teaching at Buffalo Seminary (SEM). Their journey was the muse for co-creating a new, first-ever course in Western New York history. In collaboration with history department colleagues Benjamin Priest, Ph.D., and Molly Greene, they crafted a curriculum for freshman girls to connect with their roots, before studying U.S. and world history in their later years at SEM. It’s the only course of its kind among local high schools.

“The students grow up without a strong sense of place,” said Doug. “To understand the world, we have to first understand our home. That’s what our history course is doing.”

Students discover the influence of the Seneca Indians who first settled here; the vibrant African-American community in the 1900s; the wealth of the steel industry in the ‘70s. The students are amazed by Buffalo’s pivotal role in the Underground Railroad, and they learn that Mark Twain once judged Buffalo Seminary essays back in 1870 (and see the book of original handwritten essays to prove it).

“Our collective take-away is that it has been a huge success so far,” said Dr. Priest, SEM’s academic dean. “Our girls have started to think of themselves as enlightened caretakers. As citizens who not only understand Buffalo’s past, but are committed to helping shape its future.”

As Buffalo continues its resurgence, Doug draws on resources around the city to connect SEM with Buffalo’s newest chapter. He taps into the rapidly growing immigrant community and its accompanying flood of new ideas to show students how their city connects with the world. He takes advantage of local historical authors, Mark Goldman and Tim Bohen; co-founder of Friends of the Buffalo Story, Peter Dow; and Director of the Buffalo History Museum, Melissa Brown. These guest lecturers inspire field trips, walking tours and creative assignments.

And Doug connects students to the water. The natural captain takes them paddling across the Buffalo River to learn its history.

Kyle, who leads SEM’s Community Service and Leadership programs, brings that history into the present day. Students work in the neighborhoods they learn about in Doug’s course — from working soup kitchens at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy to collecting donations for refugees at Viva La Casa.

“Driving there is eye-opening for a lot of these girls,” said Kyle.

The courses expose students to diversity, poverty and social injustices — a microcosm of the globe.

“In order to take care of others,” said Doug, “they must know about themselves and about their homes.”

Doug and Kyle Hopkins practice what they preach. Buffalo is where they put down roots for good.

“We’ve been around the world, and I don’t want to live anywhere else but here,” said Doug.

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