Educator profile

Group Leader spotlight: How travel shaped Caitlin’s family (and career!)

Caitlin Engle

via Caitlin

High school science teacher Caitlin E. knows the life-changing impact of travel. As a Group Leader, she’s seen the way students marvel when their classroom lessons come to life. She’s witnessed people overcome their fears to try something new. And she’s seen the way these experiences can bring two strangers together to form lifelong bonds.

In fact, travel brought Caitlin together with one of the most important people in her life: her daughter.

In 2014, Caitlin made the decision to adopt as a single mom. She was matched with a little girl in China. She knew the process would take about ten months, so she took extra jobs and held fundraisers in order to raise enough money to go pick up her daughter. However, the process moved along quicker than expected.

“By the time I was supposed to go pick her up, I was a little shy of the necessary funds,” Caitlin explains. “Then, I remembered I had a whole bunch of EF Global Points. I was able to use my points to pay for my daughter’s one-way ticket home. Had I not had these points, I would have had to delay going to get my child. But this way, my daughter had a family one month earlier.”

Today, Caitlin’s daughter Elizabeth shares her mother’s love of travel. They recently went to England and Scotland, where Elizabeth could visit houses from her favorite show, Downton Abbey. (It’s an impressive choice for an elementary schooler, but Elizabeth is, as her mother calls her, an old soul.)

She’s also a big fan of local Scottish fare.

“My daughter inhaled haggis,” Caitlin laughs. “She loved it. She was upset she couldn’t have it in her lunches back home.”

Caitlin also looks forward to visiting China with Elizabeth. She stays in close contact with Elizabeth’s foster family, and uses WeChat to talk with them and share photos. “We’re in a big family group chat with all of them,” Caitlin shares. “They call me ‘sister.’ They consider us part of their extended family, and it’s a wonderful thing for my child to have that connection back to China.”

Caitlin is committed to helping her daughter grow as a global citizen—and she feels the same way about her students. She serves as the advisor for her school’s STEM Travelers club, which helps students interested in any of the STEM fields go abroad. “We started it in 2008 because the only tours our school offered were either history- or world language-based,” she explains. “We thought there was a gap in opportunity for kids in the STEM field to go out and experience the impact of travel.”

The club has been a huge success. So far, they’ve ventured to the Galápagos Islands, Costa Rica, Belize, and Iceland. Up next, they’re planning a trip to South Africa. Caitlin loves seeing her students’ reactions when they realize they can actually explore these incredible places—that they’re real, tangible locations and not simply pictures in a textbook.

Caitlin’s also seen plenty of less academic, but no less life-changing, moments. She’s seen students cry tears of joy after interacting with new animals for the first time. She’s watched students step outside of their comfort zones and go ziplining. Back home, she’s seen her students maintain and strengthen the friendships they formed on tour.

“I bring this ragtag group of kids that don’t know each other,” she says. “And then they’re asking each other to prom after the trip. They’re sitting together at lunch when normally they’d be sitting in their separated areas with their own cliques of people. They switch classes because they know so-and-so’s going to be in that class, and they take subjects they never would have taken before. It’s this kind of stuff that gives me all the feels.”

Caitlin loves witnessing her students’ personal transformations—but of course, that’s only one of the many reasons why she believes travel is important in today’s globally connected society.

“We’re no longer an isolated country,” Caitlin stresses. “With the technology of today, I can message my daughter’s foster family in China and get a message back. Fifteen years ago, that wasn’t possible.”

Caitlin believes that in order to successfully participate in a global community, you need to have global experiences. That’s why, in addition to advising the STEM Travelers club, she’s also the coordinator for her school’s Interdisciplinary Global Engagement Pathway. In order to be involved, students need to take a certain number of globally focused classes and participate in a globally focused extracurricular such as the Italian club, art club, or her own STEM travelers club. Caitlin’s goal is to encourage all of the participating clubs to offer their own specialized tours.

“Traveling has renewed my faith in teaching,” she shares. “I try to get more of my colleagues to lead tours because it’s the best thing you can do as an educator. It’s the reason you get into teaching—because you love seeing kids’ curiosity and watching them learn.”


Sarah McLaughlin

Sarah is a senior copywriter at EF Education First. When she isn’t writing, you can find her browsing through bookshops, trying to cook, or going to improv class (which is basically just an excuse for adults to play make-believe).

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