Senegal Trip Caps Teaching Career

After leading many student adventures, Priscilla Campbell charts new course
In July, Julia Talasko, Amanda Seekamp, and Rafael Almanzar, students at East Hampton High School, helped with the construction of a new school during a 10-day trip to Senegal.

    When her former colleagues in the East Hampton School District report back for duty Tuesday, for the first time in over two decades, Priscilla Campbell will not be among them.

    Ms. Campbell has taught social studies at East Hampton High School for the past 22 years, along the way leading 15 student trips abroad including one this summer to Senegal. Come September, she will begin a new adventure as a labor relations specialist with New York State United Teachers, a 600,000-member teachers’ union, at its office in Hauppauge.

    “The thing I will miss most are the relationships I’ve developed over the years with my students. That I feel sad about,” Ms. Campbell said during a recent conversation. “But I stay in touch with many of them through social media and it’s been wonderful to see them develop and grow into responsible, contributing adults.”

    Ms. Campbell is a native of Jamaica. After attending Columbia University and graduate school at New York University, she returned to her first love: teaching.

    “East Hampton marks the beginning and end of my teaching career. I never taught anywhere else,” said Ms. Campbell. “Looking back, it was the perfect fit for me.” A longtime resident of Southampton, her two grown children, now 26 and 27, are both graduates of the Ross School.

    A passion for justice and the labor movement runs through Ms. Campbell’s veins. As a young girl, her mother worked as the union representative for the former Pan American World Airways in Jamaica. And for the past 16 years, Ms. Campbell was the East Hampton teachers’ union president.

    She has led students on overseas adventures to Turkey, Greece, South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, England, and France. But the recent trip to West Africa will be among the memories she holds most dear from her teaching career. For 10 days last month, Ms. Campbell led a group of 15 students on a trip to Ngohe Mbougeul, a small village in Senegal, where they paired with buildOn, an international nonprofit organization that builds schools in developing countries.

    But in order for the students to make the trip, the group first had to come up with $90,000 — and in fairly short order. Individual students contributed $1,500 each toward that amount.

    “I really did not know how it was going to happen, but I had a strong sense that it would,” said Ms. Campbell, who approached business owners along Newtown Lane, sent e-mails to everyone she knew, and even organized a district-wide yard sale in hopes of meeting the fund-raising goal. Eventually, the hard work paid off.

     “For both myself and the students, it was a transformational experience,” said Ms. Campbell. For the duration of the trip, students paired up and lived alongside families in their mud huts.

    Each morning, the group helped in the construction of a new school for the village’s children. Previously, most of the children would sit on the ground outside, with some traveling five miles by foot to attend a nearby school.

     For the building of the new school, students helped lay the foundation by mixing cement, making thousands of bricks, and carrying buckets of water. Ms. Campbell estimates that before returning to New York, about 80 percent of the construction remained, with the villagers, along with organizers from buildOn, left to complete the project. Going forward, half of the students in the village attending the school will be girls, a requirement of the buildOn partnership to improve gender parity.

    Sergio Miranda, a 19-year-old senior at East Hampton High School, who was among the 15 students chosen to attend, is hoping to organize a similar trip for next year.

    Among the qualities he will miss most about Ms. Campbell is her meticulous attention to detail and general enthusiasm, which could be seen throughout the trip.

    Amanda Seekamp, a 17-year-old senior, had hoped to have Ms. Campbell as a teacher after learning alongside her in Senegal.

    “Priscilla is such a wonderful woman,” said Amanda. “She’s always willing to help people and she’s a person you can look up to and relate to.”

    The trip to Senegal is imprinted in her memory and in that of her fellow travelers.

     “We learned to appreciate the little things, and also the big things,” said Amanda. “Our houses, our school, being able to use the bathroom and sleep in our own beds at night. I’ll never forget it. And we have Priscilla to thank.”

    As a teacher, leaving the classroom with a group of students proved invaluable and a fitting reminder of why she pursued teaching in the first place. “We learned about resourcefulness, cooperation, empathy, strength of character,” said Ms. Campbell.

    One of her fondest memories was sitting in her mud hut at night, listening to families in the middle of the compound, as they sat talking to each other in the pitch black, instead of glued to electronic devices.

    “We went there thinking that we would be giving them something. We very quickly realized we were learning as much from them,” said Ms. Campbell. “It’s a lot different from any other trip I’ve been on. We came back with stories, instead of things.”

Students from East Hampton High School traveled to Senegal to help build a school. Pictured, from left, are Priscilla Campbell, Johnny Pizzo, Josh LeClerc, Sergio Miranda, Serrana Mattiauda, Carly Grossman, Maggie Pizzo, Ryan Joudeh, Julia Talasko, Rafael Almanzar, and Alvaro Aguilar.