Keys student heading to South Africa for the summer; last year, it was China

Gavin Willis shows part of his trip last year to China. This year, it's South Africa.
Gavin Willis shows part of his trip last year to China. This year, it's South Africa.

At 17, Gavin Willis has a lot going for him -- international travel, a spot on the Key West varsity lacrosse team and plenty of extracurricular activities.

Free time, though, isn't on the list.

"I wonder the same thing, Willis said, laughing, when asked how he keeps up with his demanding schedule.

Willis, a junior at Key West High School who lives on Sugarloaf Key, won't be taking the summer off, either. Come July 4, he is due in Washington, D.C., to prepare for a six-week stay in South Africa with 14 other students from around the globe, while 15 others go to India as part of the Vermont-based Experiment in International Living's Leadership Institute.

From 215 applications to the special leadership program, which is fully funded, Willis was among 30 students selected.

Willis spent a month last summer traveling in China, an experience that included picking tea from fields.

"With every meal, there's tea," Willis said. "We were living on the side of a mountain and we decided to help them with tea picking."

When he returned home, he started an international club at Key West High. The group of about 10 to 15 students meets regularly to discuss other countries and cultures.

"We learn about cultures behind the food," Willis said. "People are always afraid of different cultures and things they don't understand. It's best to teach people the good things about cultures and the differences."

Born in Colorado, Willis was raised in South Florida. His family moved to the Keys six years ago and Willis said he wants to stay in Florida for college.

Monroe County has 21 other students taking part in the Experiment in International Living program this summer, both through need-based and merit-based scholarships, including the program's partnership with Take Stock in Children.

But the leadership program is billed as specially designed to teach students about global issues. The South Africa program will examine multiculturalism and inequality.

"They're picking the best and the brightest people who have a real interest in politics and people and changing the world," said Leyla Nedin, Gavin's mother who is a teacher on Sugarloaf Keys.

"Gavin has been watching the news and giving his opinion on politics since he was little," Nedin said. "He’s hardcore. He'll give you his opinion and he's always had a big interest in history."

Willis' application to the Leadership Institute stood out, according to Heather Beard, director of admissions.

"Not only because he is involved in many activities at school and in his home community, but also because he clearly connected his experiences in China to his development as a leader and to future goals," Beard said.

Willis plans a career in government, envisioning a run for public office in his future. 

"I definitely want to go into politics, to help the community more," Willis said.