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When students at my predominantly Black high school in Mississippi discovered that I had received my scuba certification, almost all of them bombarded me with questions — and comments.

“So, Black people really do that?”

“I didn’t know you could swim.”

They were shocked, surprised and in a state of excited disbelief. There was awe, intermingled with genuine confusion. Friends and family wanted pictures and videos. They wanted to see my gear. Instead of being offended, I was exhilarated.

Yes, I can swim; yes, I get my hair wet; and yes, Black people do oceans. My students’ curiosity led me to completely invest in exposing them to the world of scuba diving.

There is so much discussion about how representation matters, but I realize now that discussion is not enough. It is my turn to be the representative.

For this reason, I am working to create a youth scuba training program with the goal of developing a generation of marine archaeologists, scuba divers and marine life advocates.

I realized that if my students could see marine life, observe the damage being done and literally experience what they were learning in class, their understanding would extend beyond lectures and rote memorization.

I first decided to explore the world of scuba diving after reading about a Black man who had done an archaeological dive on a slave ship. I was stunned.

My history is a significant part of my identity, and the prospect of seeing a slave ship with my own eyes had me overjoyed. I immediately began researching, and discovered that he dove with a group called Diving With a Purpose (DWP).

While scouring the DWP website, I stumbled upon something amazing. DWP has a youth component, which seeks to teach youth to be marine archaeology advocates. There is no better way to make classroom concepts tangible than helping my students see it for themselves.

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I realized that if my students could see marine life, observe the damage being done and literally experience what they were learning in class, their understanding would extend beyond lectures and rote memorization.

I knew without a doubt that young people in my small town of Hazlehurst would love to dive. There were, of course, two major problems.

First, parents in my town were unlikely to let their children dive without first seeing me do the same. Second, assuming I could get community buy in, where would I work with these youth? When I asked my principal about the possibility of teaching students to scuba dive, he chuckled and said, “Let’s see you pull it together.”

The writer with her scuba gear. “I am working to create a youth scuba training program with the goal of developing a generation of marine archaeologists, scuba divers and marine life advocates.” Credit: VaLeta Wylie

I found out about the nonprofit organization Fund for Teachers (FFT).

FFT awards grants to educators to cover the costs of self-designed summer fellowships and experiential learning opportunities. Their funding provided me the opportunity to enroll in a scuba certification class and start to develop the crucial professional network I would need to give my students the experience of a lifetime.

Through the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS) I was able to connect with the multitude of Black scuba divers who make it their mission to break stereotypes and expose young people to scuba diving.

How had I never known this was a thing? I swim, so I never wrestled with fear of water, but I was genuinely unaware of the number of Black people who dive recreationally or professionally. An entirely new world opened up to me.

There were, of course, two major problems. First, parents in my town were unlikely to let their children dive without first seeing me do the same.

Initially, I was only concerned with my students having a single life-changing experience. My vision has since expanded.

Now I hope to open up a new world to my students as well, complete with training, experiences, intellectual connections and new passions. My intention is to develop an extensive program through which students first build proper scuba skills and then feed into the Youth Diving With a Purpose program.

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Though it will take time to pull all of the pieces together, much progress has already been made. Several educators and scuba divers have expressed interest in volunteering, speaking to my students, providing resources and assisting with planning and curriculum work.

How many times have I told my students to simply breathe when trying something unfamiliar? How many times have I reminded them that the most rewarding journeys are incredibly terrifying, and the most vivid learning experiences are terrifyingly incredible; that their desire to achieve has to outweigh their fear or they will be crippled in all their endeavors?

This terrifying and incredible scuba journey requires me, just like my students, to be more passionate than afraid. Each time I move below the surface, I do so with the intention of paving the way for the youth of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, encouraging them to champion oceanic depths and advocate for life beneath the surface.

Veronica Wylie is a high school science teacher at Hazlehurst High School in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. She is also a doctoral candidate at Jackson State University and is studying Chemistry Education at Illinois State University.

This story about Black experiential learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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