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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine March/April 2001
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Educational Travel

Group Educational Travel

More Rewarding Than Going It Alone

“The trip will be rigorous, the schedule exhausting. Too little private time, too many experiences to assimilate, and an overload of information. It is not a tourist trip.” This was how our leader prepared the group for what lay ahead. “But when you have recovered at home, you would not have wanted it any other way.”

He was right. Two weeks packed tighter than my suitcase with the sights and sounds of Central Europe—moonlight on the Danube, cool mountain mist rising from the Tatras, and the haunting melody of Mozart in Prague—it couldn’t get any better than this. Nor any busier.

Twenty-four people on a bus for 14 days driving thousands of miles through Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic: nine cities, seven border crossings, six hotels, five universities, three languages, two parliaments, one embassy. And more castles, cathedrals, and cobblestone streets than any one could count.

The group learned a great deal not only from our foreign hosts but also from each other, which is precisely the point.

Summer programs like this are just one of the ways the World Affairs Council of Greater Cincinnati works to broaden international understanding. With 383,000 members, the World Affairs Councils of America, www.worldaffairscouncils.org, is the largest international affairs nonprofit organization in the U.S.

Western Influences

The ubiquitous golden arches are a constant reminder of how Western influences have permeated this part of the world. Relatively unchecked capitalism and a new consumerist mentality accompanied by a precarious transition have left some longing for the old ways of Communism—at least everyone had a home and a job.

While the former Soviet Bloc countries continue to reel from the transition, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are beginning to see stabilization and an upswing: improving economies, NATO membership, and hopes of entering the European Union. Central Europe has taken on a decidedly Western identity while maintaining its own cultural richness.

“This is an historically significant time for Poland,” explained Longin Pastusiak, a member of the Polish Parliament. “Poland is experiencing revolutionary changes—social, political and economic—through evolutionary ways.” Poland went from an authoritarian to a democratic government, from a highly planned, centralized economy to a free market. “There are plenty of books on how to go from capitalism to socialism, but there are no books telling us how to go the other way,” he said. “We’ll make some mistakes.”

“Of the Central European countries, the most prosperous is Poland,” agreed Thomas Dine, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, headquartered in Prague.

“Isn’t Europe free? Aren’t you a relic?” we asked.

He says he gets these questions at every party. “Democracy here ,the Czech Republic is paper thin, but it’s thicker than most other places,” he explained.

“Radio Free Europe used to help countries achieve freedom. Now its mission is to promote democracy.”

“Hungary was known as the happiest barracks in the Communist camp,” we were told by representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. “The country operated under a liberal kind of ‘goulash communism’ because Hungary was already plugged into ideas from the West.” Even so, it has taken 10 years for the country to reach its 1989 real gross domestic product level.

Budapest, Hungary’s capital, has an interesting history, the cultural attaché told us, explaining how Pest and Buda were two separate cities. When they merged, they were going to call themselves Pestbuda but Budapest (the “s” is pronounced “sh” by Hungarians) prevailed. The city was built in just a 10-year period for the World’s Fair. In 20 years, Budapest went from a population of 100,000 to 1 million. In 1914 it all collapsed. “Now we’re just beginning to see the old lady spruce herself up,” he said.

Maximizing the Rewards of Group Educational Travel

If two heads are better than one, consider the possibilities with two dozen. One of the greatest advantages of group travel is the potential for learning and personal satisfaction that would not be possible alone.

On the other hand, traveling in packs means facing the risk of people problems and personality conflicts that detract from the experience.

Success depends upon a number of factors, but the single biggest contributor to the success of a group is that all the members are working toward the same thing. It’s critical to clarify the goal up front.

Most of the following tips for leaders of educational tours are applicable to independent travelers, but as you increase the number of participants, the need for order, clarity, and process multiplies tenfold.

Before the Trip

• Meet as a group one or two times in order to get acquainted and to share basic information about the trip. It is helpful to get a head start on this “forming” phase of group development so that limited travel time may be well spent. Lay the ground rules for the trip and share travel advice during the first meeting.

• Spell out expectations and clarify objectives immediately.

• Provide a participant information sheet to aid in the getting-acquainted phase: names, phones, addresses, email, bio-sketch. Provide maps and a complete itinerary with information on accommodations and flights. Always emphasize that things are subject to change.

• Discuss customs and provide a language cheat sheet—something that fits into a wallet with key words and phrases (and pronunciation)—for basic survival. Include emergency information.

• Review previous trips and provide examples of what worked and what didn’t.

• Motivate members by inviting experts to talk about the countries you’ll visit.

• Provide a packet of information about the area that will serve as a point of departure for further studies and provide participants with some common ground.

• If you are an educator or a student, obtain an International Teacher (or Student) Identity Card.

• Arrange meetings in the country with relevant people and organizations. Customize the trip as best you can to the group’s needs.

• Enlist an experienced tour guide from the host country.

During the Trip

• Plan for such things as converting money. It becomes old very fast if a group has to stop repeatedly for individuals to change dollars into local currency.

• Use the buddy system. You may feel like kindergartners, but better safe than sorry.

• Hold daily briefings to help everyone stay on the same page and provide time to talk about any concerns that may have arisen.

• Keep a journal to be copied for everyone after the trip. Assign one person per day to record events and impressions.

• Delegate responsibility for thank you notes and host gifts.

• Announce directions and instructions clearly. Repeat them.

• For each meeting, assign a moderator and a reporter.

• Obtain as much written material and literature as possible about the places you visit.

• Don’t forget to include some free time in the schedule so individuals, if they choose, may get lost in their new surroundings.

After the Trip

• Have participants complete an evaluation of the program before returning home.

• Plan a debriefing or reunion to share slides and information.

For More Info

Transitions Online, www.tol.cz
Central Europe Review, www.ce-review.org
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, www.rferl.org
The Prague Post (in English), www.praguepost.cz
The Warsaw Voice (in English)
The Budapest Sun (in English), www.budapestsun.com
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, www.czech.cz
Polish Embassy in Washington, www.polandembassy.org

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