2018 Civic Champion: Interview with Catherine Tinsley

Civic Champion Awardee Catherine Tinsley has served as the LearnServe International Board Chair since 2010. She is passionate about international education. She and her husband Tom have lived and raised their family in Denmark, the Netherlands, and numerous corners of the U.S. Here in Washington, DC Cathy has devoted time to volunteering at Washington International School where, among other responsibilities, she was president of the Parent Association. For 10 years she has served on the board of ASSIST (which brings international students to study at American independent schools), currently chairing their 50th Anniversary activities. She also serves on the Honorary Board of Halcyon.

We recently spoke with Catherine Tinsley about her experience with LearnServe, vision for the future, and advice for young changemakers.

What inspired you to get involved with LearnServe International?

My passion is international education. The ignition point for my life’s focus was in high school, when I participated in an international studies program. Being awakened to the world was a really heady experience that taught me not only about the world, but also about myself. I want everyone to have that “outside the envelope” experience. For me, getting outside my comfort zone was about exploration away from home. It was about realizing I had been inside an envelope of sorts until then.

There was another moment in college when a professor of mine explained the concept of “paradigm shift,” in the sense of stepping outside of your own perspective, looking at where you have been and where you are now from someone else’s perspective. Once you’ve stepped outside that box, no one can ever put you back inside. Every aha! moment becomes another opportunity to re-examine yourself and keep expanding your outlook.

These kinds of educational experiences are why I enjoy being a teacher and why I enjoy being a mother. I want these sorts of adventures and aha! moments for all students. For me, the drop dead, guaranteed way to get someone to that moment is to pick them up and drop them down in a completely new culture. What LearnServe taught me is that cross-cultural experiences can also happen in your own backyard.

When I was a parent at the Washington International School in DC (I loved having my daughter there because of the international components of their education) this new group called the Center for International Education was just forming, and they wanted to run a symposium on campus. They asked me if I would help, and I said yes in a heartbeat. It was one of those
“roll up your sleeves and jump in” volunteer experiences on something about which I was quite passionate, and I just loved it. I stayed involved as the Center for International Education became LearnServe International, joining the Board of Directors, and becoming Board Chair in 2010.

What advice would you give young changemakers?

I would say relish the moment, and absorb everything you can while you’re in the program. Some of the things you learn will be unexpected, and some of the things you learn will only become clear later.

LearnServe is very powerful in terms of the skills we teach, skills about how to be in the world. Some of these skills come from books ‒ but others are learned by living, focusing on how to be in the world, and how to be with others in the world. These skills will serve you for a lifetime.

You have learned a lot in high school that is impossible to track with a multiple choice test – wisdom and skills that you will continue to recognize throughout your life.

What have been your major takeaways from working with LearnServe?

The very best thing about LearnServe is the people. The people at LearnServe are here because they get it ‒ they understand the power of this educational experience that you can’t get from a book. From the adults to the students, I’m constantly blown away by the wide range of perspectives and amazed at how the organization, as well as all the people in it, grow and change over time.

If you want to understand LearnServe, just listen to the participants talk about the power of their experiences.

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