GLA Global Ambassadors
Each year, GLA has the pleasure of working with a group of alumni who act as Ambassadors for the academic year following their programs. We’re proud that this year, a record-breaking 150 alumni committed to duties of Ambassadorship, inspiring their home communities all over the United States and around the world with passion for service and cultural exchange.
This year’s Ambassador of the Year is Maxton Preuninger, a sophomore from Bryant, AR. Driven. Passionate. Incredibly kind. Optimistic. Wise beyond his years. Rad. That's Max! An alum of Thailand: In & Beyond the Classroom™, Max returned to his hometown last summer even more motivated to change the world through action, inclusion and encouraging others to go outside their comfort zones.
Read about Max's outlook on youth creating social change, plans to volunteer in Ghana and Tanzania this summer and which celebrity Max dreams of traveling with.
Max! Tell us who you are. What’s your jam? What do you love in life?
Hey! I’m Max, a sophomore in high school who loves animals, playing in my school’s marching band and being on the newspaper staff (I just found out I’m going to be an editor next year!). Through writing I’ve found my passion for elevating others’ voices and telling important stories about critical issues around the world, like the ongoing effects of Hurricane Maria. Last summer, after my freshman year, I went on my first GLA program, Thailand: In & Beyond the Classroom. That experience opened my eyes to all of the opportunities awaiting me abroad, and it has totally changed where I see myself in the future. Now I have my sights set on teaching English abroad.
How did you find GLA? What inspired you to travel to Thailand?
Technically I traveled as a child because my dad was getting stationed in different places. Last summer, I decided I wanted to travel on my own, and after doing some initial research I knew I had to come up with a game plan to convince my mom. I applied for a grant with the Live Like Ally Foundation and had my mind set on a program with a different provider than GLA, going to Ghana for 5 weeks. Eventually, through Live Like Ally, we found GLA and settled on going somewhere that’s a little more familiar to Western culture for my first time—Thailand. I loved it. I got to see the education system in a different country and discovered my love for teaching.
Max on program in Thailand, visiting a contemporary art gallery/museum
I know that you write for your school newspaper, Prospective. What is writing to you? What’s a story you’ve written that you’re proud of?
To me, writing is an easy way to help other people tell their stories, especially those whose voices often go unheard. It’s my medium for connecting with people without seeing their faces. Currently I like writing both news and opinion pieces—sometimes I think opinion can be even harder to write because you’re putting a piece of yourself, your soul, out there. Also, I love publishing in print. I still love print even though everything is digital now.
As for a story that I’m proud of… I was lucky enough to take on a news story about Hurricane Maria last year, and my article is now winning awards! As a freshman it’s rare to have the opportunity to pursue big news stories, so initially I felt really scared volunteering to write it. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, or how it would be received—but writing has always been my natural way of elevating important stories and giving others a voice. I knew this story needed telling. The media coverage of Hurricane Maria has slowed down a lot in the last few months and the public seems to think that Puerto Rico is fine—Puerto Rico is not fine! And there’s no justification that a country, especially one that is technically a territory of the United States and should have access to resources to rebuild, would still be struggling in the dark nearly eight months after a natural disaster.
Can you expand on some of the things you wrote about in your Ambassador of the Year essay? Tell us about “the danger of the single story.”
Yes. On my GLA program I watched a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author. Her talk is titled “The Danger of a Single Story.” Her point here is that our lives, our cultures, are made up of many overlapping stories, and when we hear or choose to believe only a single narrative, we risk critical misunderstanding. For example, we tend to generalize places we’re unfamiliar with based on hearing a single story: That African men beat their wives. That non-Western students are incapable of speaking or communicating in English (which I can attest after Thailand, is far from the truth). Generalizations—single stories—paint an incomplete picture, which leads us to make harmful assumptions and fuels industries like voluntourism. Voluntourism is fueled by the wrong idea that everyone needs help from the privileged American. This isn’t true, and shouldn’t be the reason why we choose to travel.
What’s a solution you can offer to combat the danger of the single story?
The single story is powerful, and to combat that, you have to be ok with looking deep inside yourself and getting rid of previous ideas that have taken root. Open up your mind and your heart. As Ambassador of the Year, I want to use my position and platform to set an example for other students that emphasizes spreading love, kindness and compassion, over hate, making generalizations and spreading misunderstanding.
Max on program with a student in Thailand
GLA historically hasn’t had a lot of students come from Bryant, AR. What’s your youth/travel/volunteer community like there?
I live in Southern Arkansas, which to be honest, can be a hard place to grow up as a young person who’s passionate about social change, identifies as an advocate for inclusion and is a member of the LGBTQ community. Race and religion are issues that are still prevalent and divisive here, especially in the older population. Not a lot of people go on service-learning trips like GLA, but they do go on religious or faith-based missions. When people found out about me going to Thailand, they assumed I was going with the intention of converting Thai people from Buddhism to Christianity. I was like, “No, no! I’m going to go learn about their religion, and their culture, and their communities.” Sometimes I question why assumptions like this are still made. America is represented by the Statue of Liberty, aren’t we? An icon of freedom and welcoming. But are we really free and do we really welcome everyone? Fortunately, the youth of Arkansas are more willing to challenge these old schools of thought and my mom raised me to be whomever I wanted to be. I credit them with creating an environment where change can still happen.
Tell me about the topic of your Capstone Project in Thailand, and about Lucie’s Place.
The Capstone Project is something that a lot of the 3-week GLA programs require students to do, usually around coming up with a plan to take action related to an issue you’re passionate about. On my program, everyone chose projects that relate to in-country issues in Thailand. But I chose to tackle an issue closer to home. In Bryant, AR, we have one LGBTQ homeless shelter, Lucie’s Place, that specifically serves the needs of LGBTQ young adults, to advocate for a safer community free of discrimination, harassment and violence, and to help those who are victims of homelessness get back on their feet and get jobs. Workplace discrimination is real—very real—and not just due to factors like sexuality or gender.
Anyhow, the key word when I was looking at the description on Lucie’s Place’s website was “young adults.” “Young adults” doesn’t include ages 18 and under, which is the group I would think struggles the most with finding a place to stay. So I wondered, why isn’t there a youth-specific shelter? At first I thought it must be a legal issue, like if a child or teen were kicked out of their home, they could call Child Protection Services and be put into the foster care system. Then I realized, the foster care system already needs to be worked on, even for children who are already somewhat privileged in a sense: Maybe they weren’t born into a great family situation, but if they’re white, if they’re male, if they’re straight, they already have a pretty significant advantage over other marginalized youth. So even the foster care system wouldn’t necessarily protect the under-18 LGBTQ community in times of homelessness. A youth-specific, LGBTQ homeless shelter is still something our community needs.
While I’m not quite ready to start my own youth shelter just yet, there are things I’m doing now to raise awareness. We have a GSA (Gender & Sexualities Alliance) at our school, and I brought Lucie’s Place in to talk about how to help people who don’t have a safe home life, or don’t have a home to go to at the end of the day. We talked about how to find someone a temporary place to stay without outing them if they aren’t ready. We do a community events like the “Out of the Darkness” walk, and I’m currently trying to organize a coat or blanket drive to bring to Lucie’s Place and other homeless shelters.
What I want to achieve is to make people more compassionate, respectful, aware and capable of identifying factors that might indicate an unsafe home life, and educate students on how to respectfully deal with them.
You talked about being a victim of hate and lack of understanding yourself. It seems like more and more conversations are happening about how we can become aware of and dispel microaggressions / preconceptions. What’s your outlook on that? How has your experience affected your goals?
The outlook is definitely positive! More movements are starting with the younger population and that’s really cool, because we have the tools and ability to quickly reach a broader audience. But at the same time, the fact that it’s so easy to self-publish and broadcast makes it harder to hear our voices as well. I’m learning that it’s really critical to know how to use your words and present what you’re doing, to be able to effectively argue your ideas. Especially because at the end of the day, we’re pushing for laws and policies based on understanding. I want to continue to listen to those who disagree and ask questions—and not just so I can formulate a better rebuttal but to blur the lines between us and show how our realities overlap.
Max abroad, on program in Thailand
Students often think they’re too young or don’t have a voice to create positive change. What do you have to say about that?
It’s definitely not true. I think in the last year, more people have stopped to listen to our generation. I think a lot of movements started and/or fueled by youth passion and energy came to a climax in the last year, and now, things are coming to a place of calm and listening. Nothing gets solved when you’re yelling so it’s good that we’ve arrived at this place. Students have always had a voice, but now people are listening.
As GLA Ambassador of the Year, how do you want to change the narrative of voluntourism, and shift it toward a more responsible, service-learning-based approach?
I think the good thing is that today, it’s easier to weed out irresponsible or unsustainable projects and organizations than it was a few decades ago. I plan on just spreading the word about GLA and other organizations that are doing things right. I think GLA did a great job exposing real issues for me in Thailand, and not candy-coating them for us students. We discussed how it felt to see elephant camps, and we all knew that this animal wasn’t put on Earth to be ridden.
You talk a lot in your Ambassador of the Year essay about working up the courage to go outside your comfort zone on program. What do you mean and how would you advise other students to do the same?
The first instance of going out of my comfort zone involved ziplining. First of all, there were a lot of black fuzzy caterpillars, but don’t forget you’re invading their home, not the other way around. Second of all, the zipline course involved a section that, let’s just say, challenged me to take a big leap of faith. I reminded myself that it would be really awful to leave a place like Thailand and regret not doing something. A lot of times, that’s your one chance. It turned out to be terrifying but a positive experience to look back on! My tip for others would be to find an adventure buddy who has the same fears as you and go through the experience together. Everyone on my program was so supportive and everyone wants everybody else to have a great time.
The second instance of going out of my comfort zone was at the end of the second week. We had all already spent two weeks together, and I had been going by the nickname MP. I go by Max at home, and my mom knows, my dad knows. I realized that MP had been my safety blanket, and in holding onto that I wasn’t allowing my real identity to come through. And for the sake of my own experience, I needed to tell my peers that I’m in transition, that I go by Max and prefer “he / him / his” pronouns. I did it, and it was liberating. I was worried that the Thai staff would respond negatively because there might be more or different stigma associated with different sexualities in Thailand, but the Thai staff member who had referred to me by saying “my child” even started to call me her son. That was really emotional.
So my advice would be to find an adventure buddy to confide in, push you, encourage you, and to let go of your safety blanket, whatever that may be.
I love that. You’re so aware of current issues. What are your favorite resources to gain more knowledge about what’s going on in the world?
As far as media networks, I like Vice, because they do a lot of real, raw reporting. It’s unfiltered, and that’s what people need to see to truly understand what’s going on. I feel like Vice makes an effort to cover every perspective. I also do follow individual news people on social media.
What’s next for you? Where are you heading to this summer and what’s on the agenda for beyond that (college, professional goals)?
This summer, I'm spending over a month abroad with GLA in Ghana and Tanzania. I think what’s next for me is to go to college on one of the coasts, and study somewhere where I can be exposed to a lot of diverse communities and meet new people. I definitely want to try teaching abroad, I think that’s a calling that I can’t ignore. Beyond that I’m inspired by Vice to pursue film, videography, documentary-making. Anything where I can continue to tell stories, talk about issues that aren’t talked about, and make it ok to talk about them.
Thank you so much, Max! Ok, to finish up, let's play a game of "complete the sentence..."
Thank you, Max! Best of luck on your adventures this summer and beyond. For students traveling in Summer 2018, look out for the opportunity to be nominated by your program staff to be a GLA Global Ambassador for the 2018-2019 academic year.