When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to visit Europe through the EF tours my school offered every two years. The first year, we went to England, France, and Spain, and the second trip took us through Italy and Greece. Today, I look back on those trips as pivotal moments which completely shaped what the next decade of my life would look like. But of course–I didn’t know that at the time.
At the time, I was just a teenager from a small town in Wisconsin, interested in the trips because, “Ben got to do it!” (my older brother), and, “All my friends are going!” I begrudgingly left my Abercrombie and Hollister shirts behind because my teacher–per Rick Steves’ advice–told us we’d stand out as tourists in American brands. I rolled up my socks and shoved them into my shoes to create more room for souvenirs–which I bought with no regard to the truly awful 1.9 GBP to USD exchange rate of 2007. I paid more attention to the boy I had a crush on than I did to the Sistine Chapel, and I was “that tourist” trying to make the guard at Windsor Castle crack a smile. I returned home after both trips with hundreds of photos, happy memories, and plenty of “That one time, in Europe…” stories.
Something a little deeper stuck with me, though. Five years later, when I was graduating from college with one of those not-so-useful liberal arts degrees and in the throes of that “What will I do with my life!?” despair, I asked myself, “If you could do anything, what would you want to do?” The answer was very simple: I would want to travel again. So I took the next logical step; I found an Italian family on the internet and went to live with them. To the relief of my mother, I was not kidnapped upon arrival in Milan, and I spent the next year living there with a lovely, welcoming family. I spent my weekdays with the two kids and spent my weekends visiting anywhere reachable by train from Milan. I traveled to 28 cities, learned Italian, and bonded with a family who I still keep in touch with. Perhaps most importantly, I figured out what I wanted to do upon returning home. I wanted to keep traveling, and get paid for it.
One of the things I remember most about those high school trips to Europe was the EF tour guide we had both years. She led us fearlessly through Parisian alleys like she was a local, chatted with hotel managers and restaurant owners in Italian like they were old friends, and knew everything there was to know about everywhere we went. I remember asking her about her job, and I remember my 16 year old, small-town Wisconsin self-thinking I would never be so worldly, let alone speak a second or third language! But five years later, some independent travel, and a second language firmly in my possession, my confidence had upped slightly. I decided to go for it, and I ended up being hired by an international tour operator. I led my first tour in 2015 to–as fate would have it–London and Paris, the first two cities I visited with EF. The next three years was a whirlwind of hundreds of tour guests, dozens of cities, countless adventures, and a network of friends and colleagues all over the world.
By 2016, a decade had passed since my first international travels with EF. Many of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences I had as a teenager had now become routine. For my tour guests though, the experiences they had really were once-in-a-lifetime. The main clientele of the company I worked for are retired Americans. For many, the trips I took them on were their first times visiting another country. I’ll never forget one guest who teared up with joy upon seeing the Eiffel Tower light up, which reminded me of how breathtaking that same sight was the first time I saw it. Greeting my guests as they walked through the arrivals hall at London Heathrow always took me back to the first moment I landed in England, and how excited I was to be there. Leading my groups through St. Peter’s Square on Italy tours took me back to Easter 2009, when I stood there with my high school friends and waved at the Pope. Ultimately, encountering so many people who were traveling for the first time later in life made me realize just how lucky I was to be able to do so at an early and impressionable age. Every so often, a teenager would show up on tours with their grandparents, and I did everything I could to instill in them the same love for travel I found at that age. I’ll always remember one in particular who, at the end of the tour, asked me how I got such a cool job. Things seemed to come full-circle in 2017 when, on a coffee break in London, I glanced up and saw the same EF guide who I had on tours years ago.
Today, I am living in Edinburgh while I pursue my Master’s degree in Tourism Management. Eventually, I’d like to manage a historic site somewhere in Europe. My adventures on the road ended after three years and those years taught me a vital fact about myself–I want to settle down somewhere! But I loved that chapter of my life and it wouldn’t have been possible without that first exposure to travel with EF. It’s hard enough being expected to know what direction your life will take when you’re 18 and starting college, but it’s even harder if you aren’t aware of what your options are. In today’s world, traveling, or living and working in another country is not at all unusual or far-fetched–and it might be the perfect fit for another teenager in small-town America.
I sometimes wonder what I would be doing now and where I would be if I hadn’t taken the EF trips in high school. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am pretty confident I wouldn’t be sitting in a cafe in Edinburgh typing this. I don’t think I would have spent those three years leading tours, and I’m not even sure that I would have been brave enough to move to Italy after college. Today, when I look back on photos of those trips, I feel an immense sense of gratitude (once I’m done chastising myself for thinking some boy was more interesting than Michelangelo’s greatest work, of course!). The EF trips in high school opened my eyes to the rest of the world and widened the lenses through which I thought about options for my future. I feel incredibly lucky that an organization like EF exists to facilitate travels for young people, and that I had teachers who saw the importance of giving kids the opportunity to see the world. And of course, that I had parents who were more than happy to support all of my travel dreams…but I’d need an entire book to elaborate on that.