For millions of students and teachers across the nation, summer break conjures up images of long, hot days spent preferably near water, followed by warm evenings complete with bonfires and marshmallows.
Naperville School District 203 health teacher Rebecca Hirst however, found an unusual way to beat the heat this summer. Hirst, along with a small contingent of middle school students, spent 20 days of her summer break in Australia, where it is currently winter, as a participant in the People to People Ambassador Programs.
“This has definitely been an eye opening experience,” said Hirst, who works at Kennedy Junior High School. “This year we got to see the march of the penguins.”
Founded by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, People to People provides educational travel opportunities for students and educators. Through this exchange program, People to People hopes to achieve its mission which, according to its website, is to “bridge cultural and political borders through education and exchange, making the world a better place for future generations.”
During her trip down under, Hirst was one of five adults chaperoning a group of 23 students from Michigan and Illinois.
“This was my second trip to Australia with People to People,” Hirst said. “Originally, we were scheduled to go to Japan but that changed after the tsunami hit. I’m not complaining at all, though, my trip to Australia was a once in a lifetime experience that I got to do twice.
“For the kids, however, this was their first trip of this kind. This was such a great learning experience for them.”
Hirst said that although there certainly was more traditional learning, such as Australia’s history as well as trips to the Great Barrier Reef, Australia’s Parliament, rain forests and the Sydney Opera House, there was also learning that took place during their every-day activities.
“They got to see how other people in the world live and how that compares to how we live in the United States,” Hirst said. “In some ways we are alike such as love, money, and the significance of hard work, but in other ways we are not.”
Hirst said one noticeable difference between the two cultures is food.
“They eat very healthy over there,” she said. “Their sweet food is not very sweet and they have rather bland desserts. They also eat kangaroo and a lot of vegemite, which is kind of like our peanut butter. Maybe it’s because I’m a health teacher and I notice these things but I only saw maybe five obese people the entire trip.
“I also think that they really value all kinds of life. They seem to preserve animals and land more than we do. For example, there you don’t just kill a spider, you get it out of the house, and old buildings get saved, not replaced by a Wal-Mart. Also, their parents seem to teach their children about nature and the value of it.”
With her trip behind her, Hirst is convinced of two things.
“Travel is a great teacher,” she said. “I could really see the difference in some of the students from the beginning of the program to the end. By the end of the trip, a quiet, shy, not very mature student can blossom into someone open to new adventures and who knows there is always more to learn and that you never stop growing.
"I even learned some new things on the trip and this was my second time.”
Hirst also said that without taking part in the program, the students would probably never have learned “that the wild dolphins off the east coast of Queensland, Australia, near Tangalooma Island like to spend time playing together by tossing puffer fish to each other.”
“It was amazing," she said. "Simply remarkable.”