By: Camila Angola & Emane Haque & Ananya Dondapati
Eleven High School North students spent their summer vacation traveling across Europe and immersing themselves in different cultures under the guidance of the Education First, or EF Tours, travel program. The program is not sponsored by the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district; the tours are run independently by EF Tours and North teachers. In previous years, the trips were offered only to students who took Spanish, but this year students taking French and German were also able to attend, as the destinations did not only include Spanish-speaking countries. The two tours consisted of separate destinations: the first—led by Spanish teacher Ashley Warren and social studies teacher Matthew Warren—visited Spain, Switzerland, Italy, France, and Monaco, and the second—led by social studies teacher Christa Hannon—toured Berlin, Prague, Krakow, and Budapest.
Prior to the trips, teachers reached out to students by holding informational sessions to gauge student interest. In total, eight students went on the Western trip with Mr. and Sra. Warren and three students went on the Eastern European trip with Ms. Hannon.
With EF Tours’ assistance, teachers were able to focus on recruiting students rather than dealing with the stress of planning everything alone. The company helped coordinate the destinations, flights, and hotels. It also created an itinerary of events, which included site tours and museum visits.
The group leaders felt that traveling across Europe was an invaluable experience to understand life beyond the scope of West Windsor and Plainsboro. “For me, the highlights are always watching our teens interact with people in meaningful, authentic ways—despite the linguistic and cultural barriers that exist. I loved watching students play with little children in a plaza, go grocery shopping in France, and haggle in the Spanish markets,” said Sra. Warren.
Students that visited Eastern Europe saw historical sites such as St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague and the Brandenburg Gate in Germany. On the other tour, students enjoyed all the beautiful scenery Europe had to offer, such as Mount Pilatus in Switzerland and Cinque Terre in Italy.
The students also built many new friendships with other students from across the nation. Because Ms. Hannon’s group was small, consisting of only three students, they traveled alongside students from New York and California. “I ended up making friends with a lot of people from different schools. I was able to get really close to some of the students. We made great memories, and we still stay in contact today,” Junior Manya Zhu said.
Additionally, exposure to multiple cultures, such as German or Italian, allowed students to broaden their understanding of the world. “Europe was a little different from home. We had to pay to use a public toilet, and the stores all closed early. But most of all, Europeans are way more touchy than Americans. In the US we believe in personal space, and that’s not really a thing there—it took some getting used to,” Senior Michelle Randolph said.
Aside from exploring Europe’s natural beauties, enjoying traditional meals, and developing new friendships, the group leaders and their students also gained a deeper understanding of the history of these countries, and were emotionally affected by some of their visits to historically rich landmarks. The students on Hannon’s trip did a guided tour through Auschwitz and Birkenau, Jewish concentration camps during World War II. “I had read about these places in textbooks, learned about them in class, and even visited museums, but nothing will beat the feeling of walking along the same roads that millions of innocent people had once walked to their deaths,” said Zhu.
Both tours immersed the students in various European languages, cultures, and historical background to provide educational yet interesting trips. “Trips like the one we took this summer help to open students’ eyes to the world beyond WW-P. We scaled the Alps and we swam in the sea. We were transported back in time hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years, walking along Roman aqueducts in France and touring the Royal Spanish Palace in Madrid. And we bonded as a group; we grew to be a little family. That, to me, is invaluable,” said Sra.Warren.