For Brian Booker, founder and CEO of One Step Initiative, the most fulfilling part of his job is when students return from one of the organization’s study abroad trips. “Students who have never been on a plane, or even seen the Mississippi River, fly thousands of miles away from home and come back with a sense of self that really shows what they want to make of themselves.”
One Step Initiative, founded in 2014, gives study abroad opportunities to students who might normally be unable to pursue, or even consider, the opportunity. The organization targets students of about 20 high schools, generally between their sophomore and senior years, from underserved Memphis communities, and currently has travel programs available in African countries like Ghana, Tanzania, and Kenya. For each trip, classes are held in the morning, leaving afternoons free to pursue various recreational and cultural activities. Agriculture and conservation programs, Booker says, have inspired youth to pursue new interests in life. Some come out of the program wanting to become veterinarians or cover those topics as world journalists.
The international trip itself is only one part of the program. Booker explains the three phases of the One Step process: The first starts six months out from the departure date. Students go through a training and development curriculum designed to explore various cultural outlets and have meetings with executives, such as Memphis in May founder Lyman Aldrich. “These serve to get students thinking outside the box and get them comfortable with people not like them before the trip,” says Booker. Other than seminars, One Step sponsors excursions to hockey games, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and a variety of public events such as the Germantown International Festival.
Phase two is the actual travel. “Every day is outlined to showcase the best of the location that they’re in,” says Booker. “Our programs cover a wide margin of topics like agriculture and sustainability, while an upcoming Japan trip is focused on technology and science. We’ve done everything from going to a bee farm to see how honey is used in medical procedures to meeting the first lady of Ghana and members of parliament. We’ve gone to chicken farms where they see the process of how it gets to the store shelf. It gives them a firsthand account of how things really happen.”
The final phase comes when students return from the states and work on group projects. Booker believes it’s important for the students to share their knowledge and use it to benefit the community. Following an agricultural trip to West Africa, students designed an organic farming project to address the lack of available quality food in certain Memphis neighborhoods. Other students used popular Marvel superhero Black Panther as a way to promote a discussion about geography. “They’d never thought about how big the world is before,” says Booker. “That’s something I think is very important for them to share with their peers.”
The push for underserved travel opportunities goes back to when Booker was at the University of Memphis. “I had been studying international business and Japanese, so I applied to a study abroad program at Toyo University in Tokyo,” says Booker. “I got accepted, and within a month I’d applied for my first passport and purchased my first international plane ticket. Study abroad really taught me a sense of purpose and direction that I didn’t have before. I kept thinking about what I could have accomplished by now if I had started traveling at 15.”
Booker is committed to travel opportunities for students. “I’m one of those students that graduated from what is now a bottom 5 percent performing high school in the state of Tennessee, and I realized early on that I’d missed out on a lot. A lot of job opportunities are contingent on international experience. Can you speak a second language, or can you work in a multicultural environment? These are things our students can say upon leaving this program. It pushes them out of their comfort zone, and it’s good for everyone to find some type of commonality with someone from a different background or culture.”
Students continue their interest even after the program. “Some are traveling as college freshman and are getting their parents involved, and convincing them to sign up for their first passports and plan a trip,” Booker says. The enthusiasm for travel ties in perfectly with One Step Initiative’s plans for expansion. “We’re looking to take this beyond just Shelby County,” says Booker. “There are so many students who have similar upbringings to those we work with here in Memphis, but are truly just asking for an opportunity. It’s not that students don’t have an interest in doing new and exciting things, but are just unaware that programs like this exist.”
One Step also plans to create travel opportunities for adults. Booker has been successfully experimenting with inviting along more adult chaperones with each student group. Parents and students are buying into the opportunity to finally leave the country, and Booker and One Step are ready to help. “It’s been a huge year for us, and we’re looking forward to next year where we can introduce even more people to the rest of the world.”