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Posted on Mon, Jul 18, 2011 : 5:55 a.m.

Greenhills School student and Girl Scout cookie activist returns from State Department service trip to Cambodia

By Ben Freed

Madison Vorva garnered national attention when she traveled to New York City this year to promote her campaign to remove palm oil from Girl Scout cookies.

Her more recent trip to Cambodia with Global Explorers had a lower profile, but just as much of an effect on the Greenhills School student from Plymouth.

“We weren’t just traveling, it wasn’t a vacation,” Vorva said. “We were talking to people and learning their stories and doing service and getting to know high school students on a friendship level.”

Vorva’s 3-week trip at the end of June was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, which paid for everything except immunizations and spending money for the 29 students from across the country who participated.


Girl Scouts Rhiannon Tomtishen, left, and Madison Vorva, both of Ann Arbor, have been campaigning to raise awareness of the human and environmental impact of the organization's famous cookies.

The group, selected from 298 finalists after a nationwide application and interview process, was in Cambodia from June 10-30. Vorva was the only Michigander on the trip.

Brian Miller, an expedition leader for Global Explorers, said the program is part of the State Department’s diplomacy efforts in the region.

“In some ways I think of it as a very mini Peace Corps experience,” he said. “For the State Department, it was a chance for students from the U.S. to show goodwill to their peers in Cambodia. For the students, it’s a chance to develop their skills as leaders through an immersive travel experience.”

According to Vorva, the experience was indeed immersive. Staying in the homes of local families was a major component of the trip.

“Over there you wake up to the sound of a cow mooing or a rooster crowing, or a monk chanting — people experience life so differently,” she said.

And that difference wasn’t limited to sights and sounds.

“They don’t have as much, but they don’t have as much shame, they aren’t as closed as we are. Your business is out in front of everybody and they’re all so friendly over there,” Vorva explained. “It’s just a tighter community.”

Miller said that putting the participants into “safe but challenging situations” helped them to develop leadership skills while they experienced these cultural differences. They had to work together as a group to solve problems as the trip progressed.

“From tiny things like how to get our luggage from point A to point B, to bigger things like what to do when your roommate is sick in the middle of the night because they ate bad food and you’re in a home-stay with people who speak a totally different language, they have to creatively problem-solve,” he said.

Upon their return, participants are expected to set up a long-term volunteering project back in their home communities. Vorva plans to focus her project on helping the people in Cambodia who taught her life lessons.

“You see what those people don’t have, and what they do with nothing, and they don’t want, because they’re so happy with what they do have,” Vorva said. “And you come back and you don’t want now either. Going somewhere where that’s not the focus, it’s a great place to learn humility.”

Vorva also had a chance to see the environment she had worked so hard to defend through her earlier activism. She was disappointed that she didn’t get to see an orangutan (they aren’t native to Cambodia), but she did get to experience their habitat first-hand.

“Seeing the rainforest and being in that kind of climate was so exciting, it was so much more than I could have hoped for,” Vorva said. “There are huge bugs. They’re way bigger than the ones in Michigan, stuff you don’t think about.”

Ben Freed is a summer intern at You can reach him by email at or by phone at (734)-623-4674. Follow him on Twitter @BFreedInA2.



Mon, Jul 18, 2011 : 6:50 p.m.

I think this is a great story. I like to think of today's youth as active and involved. What a great experience. I am happy that my tax dollars go toward this program..Keep up the good work!


Mon, Jul 18, 2011 : 2:23 p.m.

"We weren't just traveling, it wasn't a vacation," Vorva said. "We were talking to people and learning their stories and doing service and getting to know high school students on a friendship level." I am happy for this group to have had this experience. But lets not make it more than it was. I read nothing that would indicate this was a working trip. I don't know what the "service" was.

Tony Dearing

Mon, Jul 18, 2011 : 1:22 p.m.

A comment that violated our conversation guidelines was removed. Because it was removed, a comment in reply to it also was removed.

Matt Whale

Mon, Jul 18, 2011 : 12:30 p.m.

Congratulations Rhiannon and Madison!


Mon, Jul 18, 2011 : 11:36 a.m.

Nice to see the FED has extra money to pay for these trips. Glad they had such a fulfilling experience on my tax dollars. Why isn't the effort and money spent to help out areas and people in this country? Palm oil in Girl Scout cookies? Glad to see that crisis and saving the rainforest solved.


Mon, Jul 18, 2011 : 12:21 p.m.

Joe, I'd rather see tax money spent on this than for 2.5 wars.


Mon, Jul 18, 2011 : 10:59 a.m.

Very glad to see that these girls are so interested and so committed. But it is not that easy. There are a lot of people in developing countries who live by selling palm oil. They are exploited, certainly, by the owners of the oil palm estates, but without that, how will they live? Palm oil became unpopular because it makes rich people (Americans) fat, and harms their hearts. The poor people who farm oil palm are not lucky enough to have such worries. idealism needs realism to become useful to real people. I sincerely hope these girls push on, and spend more time living with the poor. Oh, Ann Arbor, you rich, privileged town. You are all so bright, so able to comment on the needs of the world, so comfortable, so far removed from reality. It was a trip, my dear girls. Go live there.