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Thankful for Home Through Cultural Education

CMU/GJHS Travel Learning, The Next Chapter

Educational Travel - A CMU/GJHS Cultural Education Partnership

June 21 to July 2, 2022 students, parents and staff from CMU and GJHS embarked on an educational adventure lasting 12 days, taking in 10 key sites across seven cities and six countries. 40 students and parents, plus a few additional guides, got a first-hand look into life in Eastern Europe that they won’t soon forget. 

A few of the faculty, students and parents offered these comments about the experience:

Dr. Holly Oberle, associate professor of international politics at CMU completed both her MS and Ph.D. in Germany. She also felt that her experiences working to aid Afghan refugees to reach safety in Bangladesh, gave her a unique perspective to share with the other members of this trip as they visited Krakow, Poland and talked with Ukrainian refugees currently displaced by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

When asked about what she enjoyed the most, she commented that it was wonderful to reconnect with some of her friends and academic associates while visiting familiar places with these students. She mentioned going to lunch on a bit of an informal stroll into one of the Hungarian marketplaces. She also remarked that the areas visited on this trip abound with natural beauty.

Her studies of US foreign policy during the Cold War and European Union/NATO policies also lent a unique perspective to the conversations she had with students and parents alike. Her insight was very engaging and when asked about her impressions of these places she described the experience as much more impactful than a previous visit, especially Auschwitz.

This trip was never intended to be a relief mission but several of the students and parents have maintained contact with some of the refugees they met and have chosen to provide aid where they can after seeing the circumstances these refugees are facing.

GHHS Senior, Logan J. shared some of his first impressions of Austria upon arriving there.

First trip to Europe, lost luggage, long flight (similar to Hawaii), delayed flights.

Fast food in Europe, McDonalds, charged for sauces, refills, and patties were different. Austria - graffiti but old architecture. Vienna, amazing art, abstract artists, replenish nature by incorporating plants into architecture. Maria Teresa’s palace, small roads, amazing art.  

Regarding their time in Poland, Logan talked about two girls who had only been out of Ukraine for a few days. Those girls had previously visited the US and traveled through Grand Junction. Their parents told them to run. They were applying for asylum in Canada. Pretty amazing how a “small world” connection can happen half a world away.

He also said the impact, the somber nature of the WWII concentration camp ruins was a terrible reminder of the scope of human treatment of each other. From the kindness and generosity of the Polish people towards present-day refugees to the atrocities committed against those who were concentration camp victims, it was very eye-opening and left deep feelings of gratitude for the safety we normally enjoy at home in the US.

Dr. Justin Whiteford of GJHS noted that the group met with dozens of Ukrainian refugees while in Krakow, Poland less than 100 miles from the Ukraine border. These two nations didn’t get along during the Cold War/Soviet era, but remarkably, many Polish families have welcomed strangers into their homes to give shelter and aid to those forced from their homes; some of whose homes have been destroyed. He also remarked that many of these resilient people only stay in Poland long enough for a good meal and some sleep and then they go back to defend their homes and to help others get out. “We don’t stop until all our loved ones are safe.” Stated one of these hardy Ukrainians.

Jane P. (a GJHS Junior) and her mother also shared some of their thoughts about their experience. We began by talking about their impressions of the concentration camps, simply to cover the “heavy” stuff first, as Jane described it. Much like the others, they said it was a tremendously somber part of the trip and left them grateful to have the liberties and protections we do here in the US. One part of the concentration camps, Birkenau, was so stark because of thousands of shoes, eyeglasses and suitcases left by those who didn’t survive. As a result of cover-up efforts by Hitler’s forces at the end of the war, much of Auschwitz was destroyed but Birkenau was more intact and had rooms full of the belongings left behind by the victims.

The refugees they met communicated mostly through a translator. They met one remarkable, tiny lady named Giulia who was still very concerned about others and would pray for them even when she was greatly in need herself. The Polish officials in one city even left an eight-story office building to work from home to provide more housing for those displaced by the current war. 

Jane has been overseas a few times and her mom, many times including other places in Europe, but these cities were new to both of them. On a much more positive note, the culture, the art and architecture, and especially for Jane and her mom, the music were some of the evidence of the best humanity has to offer. In Hungary particularly, the musical performances available were so abundant and when asked what was the most fun, they both said the remarkable food was very enjoyable and their opportunity with another mom to attend a performance of Carmen. They also had the experience of attending an organ recital at St. Peter’s Basilica and mentioned that some of the audience was very moved emotionally by the music there. 

The group traveled with EF Tours, the largest educational travel program in the country, to make this unique opportunity possible and to gain access to Ukraine refugee sites in Poland.  Even more, Justin Woollacott, the regional director for EF Tours, was able to help Dr. Oberle secure a last-minute flight and accommodations to join the GJHS students on this once-in-a-lifetime journey.