My previous series of blogs focused on highlights of our 2011 trip to Costa Rica. Like the other 7 trips I’ve led in the past 11 years, this one was a great experience and a huge success. Some of the students that traveled with me last year are now seniors while the rest have gone on to college. As the one year anniversary of our trip came and passed last week, many of these students began reflecting on their experience. Some spoke to me in class while others sent me email, text, or Facebook messages. In fact, I even had a student from a trip 5 years ago send me a message as he was reading through his old journal. Everyone mentioned that they wished they were in Costa Rica again. That certainly didn’t surprise me. I was feeling exactly the same. I was visiting museums, aquariums, and zoos in Chicago and paying to see some of the same wildlife that I saw in Costa Rica in its natural habitat. It just seemed really strange to me. What did surprise me, though, was that some of the students started mentioning regrets. Obviously I was excited that a year later they were still talking about and reflecting upon this experience. I was also pleased to see signs of continued growth and maturation. These conversations led me to think a bit differently about getting the most out of the student travel experience. I’ve already written about this idea from my perspective as a teacher and group leader. This time, however, I’d like to share what I’ve learned from the students’ perspectives.
The most common regret I heard was, “I wish I had spoken more Spanish while on tour.” They admit to being a bit overwhelmed at first to the new sights and sounds of a foreign country. After taking the first few days to relax and get comfortable with their surroundings, they regret not interacting more with the locals in the different places we visited. Additionally, they wish they had spoken more Spanish with one another as well as with the tour guide. There were a few students on the tour that did these very things and showed incredible growth and increased confidence in the language. Some of the other students took notice and wished they had done the same.
“I wish I hadn’t slept so much on the bus.” Some of the students stayed up too late at night and then tried to catch up on sleep while on the bus traveling through the countryside. Looking back, they realized that they missed out on a lot of historical and cultural information as well as personal stories shared by our tour guide. They also slept through hours of travel through mountains, towns, villages, with glimpses of volcanoes, rivers, and lakes. Although they made up for missed sleep, they’ll never be able to get this missed opportunity back.
“I wish I had kept a better journal.” Although I require my students to keep a journal, not all of them take it as seriously as I’d like them to. As the years pass, students begin to go back and read the journals. They want to refresh their memories about where they went, what they did, and what happened. They find it very interesting to see what they were thinking at the time and to reflect upon their growth and maturity.
“I wish I had participated in more of the optional stuff during our free time.” My groups over the years have been very fortunate. We’ve always had an outstanding guide that works diligently and passionately to show us his or her respective country. The guides have always gone out of their way, especially during down time or after-hours, to offer additional opportunities to experience the culture. Sometimes students pass on these opportunities to instead take a nap or just hang out in their rooms. This past year, students missed out on an incredible bird watching experience, talking a walk into a small town to shop and visit with locals, and even passed up going horseback riding. Many of these experiences are unique to the country and the culture. It’s important to take them in while you can. As my students keep saying in class, YOLO, or you only live once!
“I wish I had purchased items that had meaning and served as good reminders of my experience.” Many students focus on buying things for family and friends that have helped sponsor their trip. They get tired of shopping for so many other people and decide against spending more money or rush to buy something at the last minute. They end up bringing home a poorly made t-shirt, a stuffed animal, or a sombrero. It’s not uncommon that these items will either be thrown away or sold in the next garage sale. I can’t begin to tell you how many people drop off their unwanted sombreros in my classroom! Students suggest buying artwork, unique handicrafts, or CD’s containing music of current, popular artists. These are items that are more likely to stand the test of time and stick around to serve as reminders of a great experience.
“I wish I had gotten to know other people on the trip sooner.” Students often admit to hesitating to venture out of their comfort zones. They are sometimes quick to rush to judgment about others in their own group that they don’t know well or students traveling with them from other schools. As the trip goes on, students get more comfortable and begin interacting with each other. They learn a lot about other students and what it is like to live and go to school where they are from. They make new friends and, thanks to modern technology, keep in touch with them for years. Interacting with others early in trip can only result in a more fun, and enriching experience for everybody.
“I wish I had taken better pictures.” Students often focus on the quantity of photos rather than the quality. They think because they’ve taken so many that they will be satisfied. But without taking their time and focusing on the image that they are trying to capture, photos don’t always turn out so well. Once they start looking through the pictures, they realize that they have several pictures of people and few of the places and scenery they visited. Or they learn the exact opposite; they have too many pictures of places and not enough of the people they traveled with. Both special people and magnificent places help to make a great trip and the memories of each should be preserved.
“I wish I had appreciated every second of it.” After planning for a year or more for a trip, it’s almost unfair how quickly it flies by. It’s easy to get tired and worn out and then become grumpy or have a sour attitude. Some students regret getting caught up in petty arguments or getting upset about things on the trip that went wrong. They wish they had not let little things get to them, especially those out of their control, and simply learned to adjust, make the most of it, and live in the moment. After all, not everybody is fortunate enough to be able take in such an incredible experience.
I learn a lot from speaking with my students. The more I listen, the more I learn. During the past week I learned a lot about what students would do differently if they had the chance to do it all over again. Before the next trip, you can bet I’ll share this blog with my students before we go. And I bet I’ll bring it up while on tour as well. I hope other group leaders will consider doing the same.
Scott Hemker is a high school Spanish teacher and basketball coach. He began traveling with EF Tours in 2001 and has led 8 student tours to various Spanish-speaking countries. Scott strongly believes that student travel builds self-confidence and inspires students to develop and work towards long-term goals.