Standing ovations. Lines for autographs. Even an impromptu crowd surf.
You’re not at a music festival. You’re in Normandy, France with thousands of EF students and teachers who’ve come together to honor D-Day’s 75th anniversary of the landings and the soldiers who helped shape history. The headliners at this event are World War II veterans, here to share their stories with later generations.
How history came alive
In case you’re not a World War II history buff, here’s a quick recap: On June 6, 1944, Allied forces landed on the heavily fortified coast of Normandy. D-Day marked the beginning of the Allied invasion of Western Europe and changed the course of the war.
Now imagine your students absorbing those facts while the sands of Utah Beach slip between their fingers.
That idea of experiencing history at its source was the driving force behind EF’s D-Day 75th anniversary event, a passion project that began two years before travelers stepped foot in Normandy. “The goal was to touch people’s lives,” says Andrew Macrae, our director of market development and one of the event’s creators. “Here was a tangible way to connect veterans, the place, and the historical event—and then put the student at the center of it.” (Andrew is also a former teacher and a self-proclaimed history nerd.)
The result? A fully interactive experience designed specifically for high school travelers, filled with personal connections, experiential learning opportunities, moments of reflection, and plenty of crêpes—it is France, after all.
Storytelling from the source
As the veterans took to the stage at the event, they got a rockstar-worthy welcome from the crowd. We’re talking raucous applause, whistles, and even tears. And students weren’t the only ones feeling the excitement. One veteran couldn’t wait to meet his audience, so he hopped off the stage and “dove” into the crowd. The best part? Seeing a mob of high schoolers rush to greet him.
The veterans spoke about their experiences on D-Day, the memories they still carried with them, and what it was like to be back on this sandy battlefield. And in between, they doled out a few life lessons, too.
After a panel discussion, veterans posted up at picnic tables intended to facilitate conversation with students—and even ended up signing a few autographs. “My students came out of their comfort zones just by going up and speaking to a few of the veterans,” said Kelli B., a social studies teacher from Illinois. “I think they felt that thanking them for their service was the least they could do.”
Nearby, in the Utah Beach Landing Museum, students were glued to their phones. But that’s because they were exploring the story of Jack Port, the last living Utah Beach veteran, through an augmented reality app created by EF for the event. The experience features interviews with Jack, archival videos, and artifacts like his Purple Heart and postcards from basic training. (Travelers who visit the museum can still follow Jack’s journey on the app.)
Connection, then reflection
Since the event dealt with heavy topics, we deliberately created a number of quiet spaces for reflection. One of those spots was a postcard-writing station where students could send a thank-you to their teachers, their parents, or a veteran. That’s where we met Jilliyn D., a student from Ohio who was traveling outside the U.S. for the first time. “I can’t believe I’m actually here, that I get to meet these veterans,” she told us. “Without them, who knows what would’ve happened. They changed the world.”
Reflective moments also happened along the beach itself, where travelers collected sand and shells in small glass bottles. The sand there still bears remnants of the conflict, including microscopic shrapnel and iron beads—a result of munitions exploding and flash-melting in the air.
And participants contributed to an art installation that encapsulated the most poignant theme of the day. Students and teachers wrote their name on a lock and attached it to the steel sculpture, which spelled out “Remember.” The keys were sent home with them as mementos of their time in Normandy.
A storied past (and present)
It’s not every day you see high school students so moved by a classroom subject. But this past June, World War II history became a living, breathing thing.
Whether they were shaking hands with veterans or walking along Utah Beach, students formed personal connections with this place, and these people, and this moment in time. The kind of connections that can’t be found in a textbook or a black-and-white documentary. The kind of connections that have become part of each student’s own story, too.
The veterans who joined us in Normandy this year are some of the last living soldiers from World War II. But thankfully, their stories don’t end there. Because when it comes to these rockstars, the students are their encore.
Editor’s note (2021): Since the original publishing of this post, Jack Port, a WWII veteran, passed away at the age of 98. We are eternally grateful for the relationship we formed with Jack and the opportunity to share his incredible story.