“I think it’s important for them to see that there is so much more out there,” said Cynthia Koster, language arts instructor at Denison High School (DHS).
She recently led 35 students on a trip of Europe to open their eyes about different cultures and visit some of the places they have learned about in school.
The group traveled to Italy, Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic and the cities of Rome, Pisa, Florence, Verona, Munich, Prague and the Tyrol region of Austria.
“I think that everybody got something out of the trip,” Koster said. “They saw places they always wanted to see. I heard kids say they were starting to check stuff off of their bucket list, which is awesome.”
The trip was open to any sophomore, junior or senior.
The tour was not tied directly to any DHS class and was not school sponsored, though Koster does draw students from DHS for the trip, she said.
Each of the students on this year’s outing had been in Koster’s ninth grade English class, as it turned out.
“I wanted to go because it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it was a lot cheaper than doing it yourself or doing it with a family,” said Kaitlyn Pieper, who just completed her junior year at DHS.
Koster works with EF Educational Tours to book flights, hotels, meals, guides and transportation when she arranges the tours, which take place every other year.
One of the things the students learn on the trips is how to function independently.
“We had some students that had never really been on a trip before, let alone in an airplane, who were able to confidently make their way around an airport and fly across the ocean, which is not an easy feat for your first trip.”
The trip lasted a total of 11 days, with nine of those days spent touring and two of the days spent on travel. They returned home on June 27.
The most humbling destination of the tour was the Dachau concentration camp outside of Munich, Germany.
“I had a lot of kids say that it was very moving and something they would never forget,” Koster said.
Some of the students wanted to see the camp museum on their own; others wanted to go along with someone.
The means of transportation was one bit of culture shock for the students.
“We walked over 57 miles and a lot of our kids said they never would have dreamt of walking that much,” she said.
Pieper agreed that the group did a lot of walking.
“But I really never noticed it,” she said. “If you change your shoes every other day and just wear a different pair, you don’t notice it.”
Driving in Europe is a lot different, she noted.
“Especially in Italy, they really don’t like to follow a lot of rules,” Pieper said. “There were bikes and mopeds swerving in and out of traffic. You’d get pulled over in 10 seconds if you did that in America.”
Koster said the students with Spanish language skills were able to get along in Italy.
“It was fun to see the kids that are Spanish speakers, either native or have taken Spanish in high school, be able to communicate in Italy because Italian is very close to Spanish,” Koster said.
“Italy was easier than I expected it to be,” said Pieper, who has had two years of Spanish but doesn’t consider herself to be a Spanish speaker.
Pieper said the language barrier was not too high because many people speak English in the countries the tour visited.
“On our bus, the tour guide helped us and she taught us words like ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘please’ in the different languages we would encounter,” she said. “But for the most part over there they are taught many languages from young ages, so a lot of people are really tolerant.”
“We kind of live in a culture where it’s very ego-centric and all about ‘me,’” Koster said. “For them to see the way others live and what they value, the different types of food, I think it’s also a good way to show them that there is more to the world than the United States or their native country. There is so much more out there.”
Pieper said the age of the architecture in Europe was a memorable discovery for her.
“In America, you look at our history and you think 200 years is so old,” she said, “but you go over there and there are things that date back to 1,000 BC and it’s still standing or you’re walking on it.”
Students had the option to raise funds for the trip if they chose to, Koster said.
“They didn’t have to - and the fundraising does not cover the cost of the trip,” she said. “Students and parents had to come up with that money on their own.”
One student was able to raise nearly $1,000.
The funds were used to pay for passports and extra excursions that weren’t on the itinerary during the tour.
Some of the money also went to pay tips for the tour guides.
A high point for Koster was during the group’s first supper at a beer hall in Munich.
“There was a stage – and I had three of my large group speech improvers on the trip with me,” she said.
She pointed to the stage and to the three students and encouraged them to go up.
“The three of them got up in front of the group and did an improve situation that was related to our trip,” Koster said.
That was part of the bonding that happens with travelers, she said.
“I’m a firm believer that once you travel with a group of people, that connects you for the rest of your life,” Koster said. “You may not talk to each other again, or you might have a close relationship when you get back, but for those nine, 11, 14 days that you’re together, you have experiences that no one else will understand, and that bonds us.”
Pieper said she would like to take a similar tour in the future.
“I loved the places I was at, but seeing more of the world is eye opening and I would love to go to brand new places and see all new history,” she said.