Learning to Serve

Global Travel Organization Gives High School Students New Perspective

Luke Mueller cofounded Walking Tree Travel to help young people become global citizens.
Photo courtesy of Luke Mueller.

This summer, Justin Capone, a high school senior from Albany, California, spent ten days in Guatemala, working in a community garden in the mountainous village of Santa Clara La Laguna near Lake Antitlan. 

He described the experience in a blog post. “Coming into this program, none of us knew what to expect,” he wrote. “We had no idea if we would make friends, if we would like our host families, or if we would enjoy our stay. We all found that not only did we achieve all of the above, but we learned something about ourselves. Traveling to a country and performing a service for someone less fortunate than us is not only a rewarding experience for them, but also for ourselves. The close-knit village of Santa Clara showed us the impact a few people can make on a much larger scale.”

That kind of meaningful international experience is just what Luke Mueller 02C had in mind when he cofounded Walking Tree Travel with two childhood friends.

At Emory, Mueller majored in sociology with a minor in Latin American history, and spent a semester studying in rural Mexico. “I had a lot of friends at Emory who were international students,” Mueller says. “That went a long way to push me in a more global direction.”

After college and a year teaching and working in Costa Rica, he reconnected with two friends, Paul Laurie and Gabriel Duncan, in their hometown of Denver, undecided about the future. That’s when the idea for Walking Tree began to take shape. 

“We all had a passion for international exploration,” says Mueller, who is fluent in Spanish and had traveled extensively in Latin America. “We had taken a trip in high school that was very generic. We envisioned a different, more authentic experience.”

The three marshaled their resources and found some investors, and in 2006, organized their first program for twelve students in Costa Rica. That number jumped to thirty-six the next year, then one hundred; today there are nearly 2,500 alumni of Walking Tree programs. The organization now has a presence in twelve countries and drew six hundred high-school student participants this year.

Walking Tree was named for trees found around the world that gradually move toward sunshine and water. The name reflects the founders’ goal of putting down roots and establishing genuine, longstanding connections in the program’s host communities—a message they hope to convey to the students who travel with them.

“Sometimes there is a disconnect between service and results, especially for kids this age,” Mueller says. “We do our best to ensure the usefulness of our programs. We want to foster a genuine exchange of ideas and attitudes between ourselves and our hosts. We’re not the only company that has service component, but we may be unique in the sense that we really encourage structured reflection about what
we are doing during each program.”

 “We expect a lot from these kids,”  Mueller adds. “We think sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are capable of profound accomplishments.”

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