Aug 8 2009
Breakfast ends with a mug of hot and sludge-like chocolate, the dipping sauce for freshly fried churros – fat and slightly greasy rods of sugar-doused dough. The traditional Spanish treat challenges even the most ardent sugar-holics; only our guide has the gall and gastro-stamina to empty her cup.
We are in Zaragoza, the fifth largest city in Spain, halfway between Madrid and Barcelona. I head outside as the sugar buzz begins, to watch the churreria from another angle, and am not alone for long.
Who else strolls up, more than 5,000 miles from Wisconsin? Carol Wolfenden of the La Crosse area, who is accompanying Spanish Club students from Hillsboro High School (Vernon County). The teens also saw Germany, France and Morocco before returning to the U.S.
During my own two weeks away, whenever I was in the mood to quiz a group of student travelers about their home, it seemed like the answer was a lesser-known Midwest community. At Seville’s 1929 World Expo grounds, for example, we crossed paths with high schoolers from Dousman, population 2,000 (Waukesha County).
Times certainly have changed from my girlhood: I was age 11 before leaving Wisconsin for the first time, age 19 before taking my first airplane ride in 1974.
Katie Keehan is much younger than me, but she already knows all about the positive ways that travel abroad can widen perspectives and influence life decisions. The DePere native worked at an ice cream/burger shop to pay for her first trip abroad, to Spain as a teen in 2000.
“This was the starting point for my love of world travel and my passion to learn new languages and study new cultures,” says Katie, who today lives in Chicago and works for companies that arrange group travel throughout the world.
“The tour company we went with (in 2000) combined four schools from across the United States, so all of our tours, meals, bus rides and hotel accommodations were with these other schools,” she explains. “I am still very close to a number of the other travelers.”
This is similar to how the Hillsboro students traveled, says Shannon Chute, Spanish teacher at Hillsboro High. EF Educational Tours (www.eftours.com) provided trip escorts and arranged itineraries, meals, lodging and months of support. All simplified the school’s trip planning.
“Wisconsin is a hugely important state for educational travel, in general, and for EF Educational Tours, in particular,” says Eric Beato, the tour company’s director of communications. He notes that Wisconsin is one of 11 states in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an advocacy organization whose priorities include global awareness.
“I think, especially coming from a small town, that this experience is good for increasing appreciation of other people’s cultures,” says Shannon, who soon begins her fifth year of teaching. “A little culture shock does everybody a lot of good.”
Her 16 student travelers prepped by speaking 40 minutes of Spanish during every school day and raising money to lessen the per-student trip expense of about $3,000. Costs were defrayed by selling raffle tickets, coffee, candles, taco dinners and concessions and at school events.
For most teen participants, it was their first trip out of the country. For some, it was their first plane ride. Everybody seemed to learn something different from the experience.
“It surprised me most that so many people spoke multiple languages,” says Sarah Anderson, who hadn’t traveled outside of the U.S. before the Hillsboro trip. “It made me want to continue learning and improving my Spanish.”
Classmate Emily Wolfenden was surprised by “how much Spain is like the U.S. I didn’t expect it to look so much like home.” Her previous travels have included the Netherlands and Czech Republic.
“I wanted to travel to Spain because the opportunity was there and it was someplace that I would never go to by myself,” says Roxie Mikula. For Kinsey Lind, the trip was an opportunity “to see for myself the similarities and differences, compared to the U.S.”
“It was a really great experience to be able to leave the U.S. and see the different lifestyles that people have,” says Vanessa Mislivecek. A school band trip to St. Louis had been the farthest she traveled before this.
Brienne Shaker liked learning about Spain’s history and culture. She took this trip to chalk up a new life experience “and to show people life doesn’t end at the Vernon County line.”
Note: One-half of Mary Bergin’s trip to Spain was as a guest of Spain’s tourism office, during a press trip that involved five other U.S. travel journalists.