From Barre to Ecuador: Helping Families in South America

Vermont Bernie Buzz

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- During his junior year at Spaulding High School in Barre, Vt., Matt Systo had an epiphany. He decided to graduate a year early and help low-income families in a developing country. He loaded up on courses and graduated in just three years. Earlier this month, after completing a four-month program in Ecuador, Matt, 18, had an impromptu meeting with Sen. Bernie Sanders in Washington, D.C. where he shared some of his experiences.

In an interview after meeting with the senator, Matt explained why he wanted to skip his senior year in central Vermont and head to South America. He said he was well placed to become captain of several sports, but recalled thinking, "What can I do with this year that's bigger?"

"I really just wanted to go out and do something," Matt said.

During his junior year at high school, Matt met with his school counselor at Spaulding, Sue Chickering, to figure out how he could graduate early.  Matt was one of two students that year to graduate early, she said. The other Spaulding student joined Up With People, a singing group that traveled the world, Chickering said.

Graduating high school in three years, however, is "pretty unusual" and Chickering doesn't recommend it unless there is a good reason. "When a kid wants to, you want to say: what's your goal?"

"I never encourage a student to rush. At no point am I advocating kids to graduate early. I encourage them to make the most of high school and then move on. For him, it wasn't meeting his needs. ... He was just ready to have a different experience. It needs to be given a lot of thought and be done for the right reasons," Chickering said.

 "We talked a lot about his interests," she said of her meetings with Matt. "He wanted to travel and he wanted to experience a different culture. He started thinking on this and he came back with this great idea."

The option Matt found for post-graduation was through a Fairfield, Conn.-based nonprofit called Thinking Beyond Borders. The organization had a four-month program in Ecuador which caught Matt's eye, though he didn't know much about the country.

 "I knew it was in South America. I didn't know where exactly ... but I came away knowing Ecuador," Matt said.

In addition to learning about Ecuador and improving his Spanish, Matt helped low-income families and volunteered in local schools.  During his travels, he lived with two local families, spent a month in a secluded location a "1 ½-hour hike up a mountain" and in sizable cities where he worked in health care clinics to learn about medical care in Ecuador.  The families he stayed with, he said, "were really appreciative that we were coming to learn about their culture."

Matt left for Ecuador in August. He and the four other American students returned to the United States at the beginning of December.  After a few days in Washington, D.C., including a lobbying trip on Capitol Hill to advocate for legislation that would help make education obtainable throughout the world, Matt and the other students will write about their experiences to highlight what they have learned. To help cover the cost of the program, Matt worked during the summer, primarily by mowing lawns.

Matt's not sure what comes next in his life, but he said he is "extremely excited" about the possibilities.  "I want to go to college, eventually," he said, noting he has applied to Brown University and George Washington University, among other colleges and universities. His experiences in Ecuador also piqued his interest in medicine and foreign affairs. "I'm more uncertain about what I'm going to do. But I'm all about change," he said.