For years, Hillsboro High School teacher Barbara Hewitt helped her students expand their horizons with her European travelers program, a whirlwind trip that took young men and women through countries like England, France, Germany and Austria. Now, one of Hewitt's former students has embarked on a similar adventure, giving his students the opportunity to make their own overseas memories.
Hillsboro grad and Litchfield High School teacher Shane Cress led a group of 38, including 20 Litchfield High School students, on a foray into the United Kingdom and France earlier this month, in what he hopes becomes another long-lasting tradition.
"It's something I had become more interested in doing," Cress said of the travel bug. "I didn't go when I was in high school with Mrs. Hewitt, but I thought, 'Well, I can just start a program and there is my opportunity to travel.' From there it just took off in a way that was very unexpected."
In the span of eight months, the program went from the idea stage to the full blown reality of a ten-day trip with stops in Paris, London, Wales and Dublin.
"I thought I would maybe have eight or ten people. Little did I know...," Cress said. "It was an overwhelming response. By the end of my pitch meeting, 17 people had signed up already and it just snowballed."
Those who went on the trip were treated to an experience of a lifetime. From checking out priceless works of art at the Louvre to the majestic Eiffel Tower, Cress, the chaperones, the students and a small group of parents hit the ground running in Paris, almost literally.
" The tour director picked us up at the airport and you walk like nine miles, eight miles, whatever it was. It felt like forever," Cress said with a laugh. "But because you take off at 11 in the morning here and land at seven in the morning there, if you don't sleep on the plane, you're in trouble. Everyone got adjusted pretty quickly after that first day."
After a two and a half days in Paris, the trip continued to London, with stops at Piccadilly Circus, Big Ben, Parliament and Tower Bridge, among other destinations.
While the tour, which was done through EF Educational Tours, was structured and had certain items on its itinerary, Cress said that there was also free time to explore the cities they visited. This gave the visitors time to see things like the Abbey Road Studios, Wembley Stadium and experience the culture of London.
Following the stay in London, the pilgrimage continued to Stratford-upon-Avon for an afternoon, before moving on to Wales, which Cress said was one of the unexpected highlights of the trip.
"The night that we stayed in this little hotel in Llangollen," said Cress, doing his best to pronounce the name of the town of just over 3,500 that is nestled at the edge of the Berwyn Mountains on the River Dee ("The double L makes a different sound in Welsh.").
"There were these two bands that were at a pub that was just like three doors down from our hotel. The kids were dancing and singing. It was fabulous. I think every kid fell in love with Wales that night."
Cress found it interesting that after five days in two of Europe's premier cities, the students found something special in a town not that different from their own.
"We went to all of these big cities and we're in this little town that more mirrors where we live, but it doesn't because it sits on the river and looks like it's straight out of a post card," he said. "It was a really fun night. That was the night, for me, being out on a limb doing this, that I was like, 'I think we did it.'"
After experience the best of Llangollen, the group spent a day and a half in Dublin before returning home. Expanding on the brief encounter with Ireland and Wales was one of the few things Cress said he might do differently with the trip.
"If I go back to England or the UK, I'll definitely try to set up a trip that includes more countryside," he explained. "I love London. London was probably my favorite place that we went, but we went to a castle for crying out loud. People dug that definitely more than I was expecting. And we didn't really get to see much of the Irish countryside at all. I'll have to do more of that in the future."
The "if" in that statement is really more of a "when" due to how well the trip went as a whole. Cress credits his tour consultant with EF Tours for helping him feel prepared for the inaugural experience, along with the group's tour director, a Wolverhampton Wanderers fan who Cress described, borrowing a British term as "brilliant."
Cress also had high praise for the students that embarked on this first adventure.
"We had a fabulous group of kids," said Cress, before adding with a laugh, "They didn't embarrass Litchfield or America, which is what I asked of them."
While Cress doesn't know the next time he'll take a group to the United Kingdom or France, the planning of his next trip is well underway.
"We're going to Italy and Greece next year," said Cress, who already has 19 signed up for that excursion. "I've had people ask me about the next trip and if I'm going to open it back up. It just depends on whether I want to try to fill it. The EF Tours try to have 40 or so in a group, so if we don't have that many, we'll be with another group."
Ultimately, Cress believes that the trip was a good learning experience for the kids, and the adults who went along, both in experiencing a different culture and in gaining some resourcefulness in dealing with different situations.
The trip was also a good one for the coordinator, who said that the tour offered something that teachers can't always get from a more traditional school setting.
"Personally, it was just fun to be with students and parents in a different environment. That has, to a certain extent, refreshed me as a teacher," Cress said. "To see those looks of wonder on their faces, you don't always get to see that in the classroom. It reminded me of what education can do and how educational travel can be and expand horizons for kids."