Teacher gives students opportunity to develop global views

  • Written by Deborah Stone
The group poses for a photo in Heidelberg. Courtesy photo.
Up until four years ago, if you had asked Clark Cox if he would be interested in taking a group of students to Europe in the summer, the answer would have been a definitive "no."

The longtime WHS social studies teacher relished his summers sans students.

And conventional group tours didn’t appeal to him, as he considered himself to be more of a backpack-style traveler.

A good friend of his in California, a fellow teacher who has been taking kids abroad for the past 15 years, however, convinced him to give the experience a go.

"He kept after me, telling me that I would really enjoy it," says Cox. "Finally, I gave in and decided to try it. And am I glad I did! It was so much fun being around the kids and I saw so much more than I’d ever seen in my previous trips on my own."

Each summer since that first trip, Cox has headed up a group of WHS seniors and parents, taking them on a two-week tour of some of Europe’s most famous sights.

He started with eight participants that initial year, but since then, the number has grown.

This summer, he had a group of 42 – a combination of 28 recent WHS grads, one sophomore (a sibling of one of the grads) and 12 parents.

"I really like having parents along," comments Cox. "They are more security-minded, they help me and it’s nice to have other adult companionship. For them, it’s a very special opportunity to spend quality time with their kids and experience Europe together."

The trips are not school-sanctioned or sponsored. They are privately done using the services of a professional company such as Explorica or EF Tours.

Cox explains there is a professional tour director who is with the group 24-7 and who deals with all the arrangements.

Licensed guides are utilized in each of the different cities visited. The destinations vary slightly from trip to trip. This summer, the group spent time in Munich, Heidelberg, Paris, Nice, Provence, Barcelona and Madrid.

"We follow the same format most days," adds Cox. "In the morning, we have a group-guided activity and then in the afternoon, there’s free time for the students and parents to explore the area on their own. This gives them a chance to go back to places if they want or visit other sights. They can do what inspires them, to enrich their experiences."

For safety reasons, the students need to always be in the company of at least one other individual when they go off to explore independently.

And one member in each group must carry a cell phone with Cox’s cell number and the hotel’s contact information.

Cox delights in seeing how the trip affects the students. He feels it opens them up to the world and gives them a global view. They get newfound independence and confidence, as they use the languages they have studied in high school, navigate the various transportation systems, try new food and negotiate different currency. "It really empowers them and shows them they can be successful in another country and that they don’t have to be afraid to travel abroad," adds Cox. "And culturally, they get all these different perspectives that allow them to think beyond our borders."

As for the parents, Cox notes that the experience also is a confidence booster and that many feel more comfortable traveling on their own after the trip.

Dustin Myring, a 2010 WHS grad, who is now at UW Bothell, has done two trips with Cox.

"I had such a great time last year," he says, "that I wanted to do it again. And this time, my mom went with me, which was lots of fun."

For Myring, there were many highlights of this summer’s trip, which he describes as amazing in every aspect.

He particularly liked the charming university town of Heidelberg and hopes to return to Germany as an exchange student next year.

He comments, "I studied German for four years and my heritage is German on my father’s side, and I just really enjoy the country."

Although he is not a huge history buff, the teen was fascinated with all the European historical sights he explored.

"Everything is so much older over there than it is here," he notes. "Buildings that are thousands of years old are still standing and it makes you think about all the history over the years."

He adds, "When I was there, I just tried to learn as much as I could and absorb as much as possible."

Myring feels the trips Cox organizes have the right mix of scheduled and unscheduled activities. He particularly enjoyed the freedom to pursue his own interests and visit places that were not included on the tour. In regards to challenges, he cites a major one – currency.

"Tracking your money can be tricky because the Euro is much stronger than the dollar so you need to be careful when you buy something," he explains. "It’s important to understand how much you’re spending."

Since this was his second time abroad in a relatively short time, the teen was even more aware of cultural differences; the most notable being the pace of life.

"You have to slow down when you’re in Europe. Things take more time over there, like eating at a restaurant, for example. People spend more time when they go out and the service is much slower. Everything is made fresh, made that day. People don’t seem to mind waiting. They enjoy the whole dining experience and there’s no rush to eat and leave quickly."

Molly MacDougall, another student on the trip, had never been to Europe before this summer.

"It was never convenient for our family to go," she says. "But, when I heard about Mr. Cox’s trip, I saw it as a great opportunity to do it before I went off to college."

The recent WHS grad, who will attend Colorado State University in the fall, was most enamored with France.

She loved being able to use the French she had learned in school for the past four years.

"It was great to speak the language and have people understand me and for me to understand them. The people were really receptive to us when we used their language. They really appreciated it."

For MacDougall, it wasn’t always the well-known sights that impressed her the most. In Paris, for example, she much preferred the Latin Quarter to the Eiffel Tower. She comments, "The Eiffel Tower just wasn’t as grand as I expected. And it was a real tourist attraction. But, the Latin Quarter was really authentic with homegrown restaurants that the locals ate at. I loved it there."

She also enjoyed Nice for its beautiful boardwalk along the Mediterranean.

And like Myring, she was partial to Heidelberg with its famed castle up on a hill overlooking the town.

The teen spent her free time engaged in a variety of activities.

"We shopped, did more sightseeing, strolled through gardens and did a lot of people watching in the cafes," she notes.

For MacDougall, the experience ignited an urge to travel more. She definitely plans to return to Europe and hopes to study abroad in France in a few years.

"I found I fit in really well to the French culture," she remarks. "Maybe even better than my own culture." She adds, "The trip really helped to broaden my views and give me insight into other cultures. I think you can only really get this when you travel and visit other countries."

As for next year’s trip, Cox has already received interest from a number of students interested in participating.

He notes that word-of-mouth is his best advertisement, explaining that students tell their friends and parents tell other parents about the experience, and interest continues to grow.

"Next year, my goal is to have two groups," he says. "The best balance of size to costs is around 35. Forty-two is a bit too large. My plan is that I would lead one group and the AP Art History teacher, the other."

Cox hopes to continue doing the tours for a long time to come.

"I’m definitely hooked," he adds. "Seeing kids enjoy and learn — seeing that light bulb come on over and over again is such satisfaction for me. And what’s wonderful is that I’m learning along with them."

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