For most people, the task Sharayna Christmas had last summer might have seemed overwhelming. She, along with the African Diaspora Alliance, was charged with shepherding 13 teenagers, some of whom had never left Baltimore, through Cuba, a country that had for years been cut off from the U.S. and lacked the comforts of home. But Christmas—executive director of Muse 360 Arts, which offers youth from diverse backgrounds artistic training and experiences—is no stranger to this type of journey.

Since 2007, she has taken similar groups to nine countries associated with the African diaspora. “The idea is to see people of African descent embracing their cultures,” Christmas says. “They have a pride and love for their countries and have developed an identity that’s missing here in Baltimore.”

The mostly high school-age students have to fundraise to pay their way, as well as prepare a research project to present upon their return. And this year marks a new chapter for the program. Starting this month, students will meet monthly, and, to prepare for international travel—next year’s destination is the Brazilian state of Bahia—they’ll visit Washington, D.C., and New York.

The hard work is worth it, says 17-year-old Hydeaia Hale of West Baltimore. In Cuba, her days were packed with dance and drumming workshops and a visit to a slave plantation. But her favorite part was a talk by Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando. “She told us it was a blessing to talk to young people,” says Hale. “That’s why I like to travel—it opens me up to new experiences, and shows people like Gloria that there are black youth who want to do good things with their lives.”