A group leader returns to The Experiment 46 years later
By Stephanie Genkin
In 2013, Portland, Oregon, native Gary Nees was 68 years old and planning his retirement. He still had a bug for international travel and a fondness for the Spanish-speaking world. 46 years earlier, he’d spent a summer between his sophomore and junior years of college with The Experiment in International Living — part of the DC-based nonprofit World Learning, which organizes immersive experiential learning programs abroad — leading a group of 12 students to Mexico, and he liked the prospect of doing that again — if the program was open to guys like him.
“I called The Experiment and asked, “Hey, do you hire old people?‘” said Nees, a former financial executive with quick wit and a dry sense of humor.
The program doesn’t discriminate on the basis of age, he was told. So Nees applied to be a group leader and returned to travel with a second group of high school students to Mexico in 2014.
Nees was no stranger to Mexico. Even before hooking up with The Experiment, an 80-plus-year-old program operating in 20 countries, he had lived south of the border for two years at age 19, on a mission with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In between his two summers with The Experiment, Nees met and married his wife Sara. Together, they raised four children and had six grandchildren. He climbed the ranks professionally and travelled extensively. Despite all this life experience, he still got jitters just before heading to Brattleboro, Vermont, for the training week.
“I had a little fear and trepidation, mostly about whether I would be accepted and how I would I be viewed,” he admitted.
He was concerned that as a senior — a senior citizen, that is, not the kind in college — he would stick out among the predominantly twenty-something-year-old group leaders That triggered additional worries about whether the high schoolers on the program would want him around.
His fears turned out to be unfounded.
Nees was a big hit in Vermont, recalled Christina Thomas, Director of Operations for The Experiment. “All 80 of us were like, ‘Go Gary’,” she said.
“He gave us great perspective and connected with the other leaders as a mentor and also as a friend,” said Thomas.
“It worked out wonderfully. I felt so accepted. It was just great,” Nees said referring to the training. As for the students, “I didn’t know what they were talking about half the time, but it didn’t matter,” said Nees, then added, “I was grandpa.”
He was more than a respected elder. Nees was someone the students could look up to, learn from, and joke with too. He proved he could cross the generational divide at times, even rapping in Spanish for the group.
It was such a good experience that Nees signed up for another group leader assignment. Last summer, he led The Experiment’s trip to Spain.
Now a fully retired septuagenarian, Nees remains engaged and doesn’t plan on slowing down. In addition to leading two groups for The Experiment, he’s been auditing college courses in geology at Portland Community College and is an active member of his church. He still travels abroad and recently returned from a vacation in Hungary on a Viking river boat cruise down the Danube with his wife, but said he’s led his last group for The Experiment. “Sara and I agreed it was just too hard for us to be apart for five weeks anymore,” said Nees. Nevertheless, he admitted he’s missing the leader training in Vermont and, of course, “the kids,” as he fondly refers to the students.
He’s kept in touch with them, exclaiming, “hooray for Facebook” and said that some of the students call him periodically. Then sounding like a proud grandparent, he gushed that many are going to college next year. “I got kids in Cornell, Penn, Gettysburg — wonderful schools. They are doing great stuff,” he said.
One of those students is 18-year-old Joseph Igoni from Collierville, Tennessee, who will be starting at Georgetown University in the fall. An alumni of the Spain program Nees co-led last summer and a alumni ambassador for the program, Igoni said, “Gary was like a fun grandparent.” Asked how so, he recalled that Nees created a euphemism for when someone needed a bathroom. Instead, the group would say “I need to go to church.”
Igoni added that Nees “became one of the highlights of being in Spain.”
Nees chuckles at the recollection and marvels at how much The Experiment has changed since his first trip as group leader in 1968.
For instance, the recent programs all focus on social and cultural themes, in addition to the home stay, which remains at the center of the experience. Students on the Mexico program concentrated on the country’s rich culinary traditions.
“The kids learned to cook all kinds of wonderful stuff,” said Nees, adding, “I scrubbed pots and pans and took plenty of photos of them.”
The program to Spain explored cultural diversity. So did Nees, albeit a different kind of diversity.
“My real cultural immersion had nothing to do with Mexico or Spain but being with these wonderful kids, most of them black and Hispanic and from inner city schools,” he said, noting that the composition of the groups wasn’t as diverse decades ago.
“Very different from the old white people I usually hang out with in Portland,” he added.