By Kristen Miller
DASSEL, COKATO, MN Five Dassel-Cokato High School students recently returned from a life-changing experience in which they spent 19 days traveling around Europe as part of their summer vacation.
Emily Kivisto, Emily Linder, Alison Basney, Mackenzie Batzel, and Jenny Bistodeau embarked on the European tour through the People To People Ambassador program.
The program began with a vision by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 as “a peaceful solution for a war-ravaged world” by giving ordinary citizens of different countries the opportunity to meet in order to build understanding, friendships, and lasting peace, according to the website.
Today, its mission continues “to bridge cultural and political borders through education and exchange, creating global citizens and making the world a better place for future generations.”
As part of the program, the five Dassel-Cokato sophomores and juniors toured four countries between June 21 and July 9 including Italy, France, Austria, and Switzerland.
Some of the highlights of their trip were a guided tour of the Roman Colosseum in Italy, the Notre Dame Cathedral in France, the Swiss Alps, and the most powerful for them being the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
Being able to visit the places they had heard about in history class was an experience in and of itself, Linder explained.
“It’s one thing to learn out of a book, but it’s a totally different thing to be there and see it,” she said.
The five were among a larger group with students from St. Cloud, Mankato, Iowa, Ohio, and Illinois.
During their trip, they stayed in hotels, with the exception of Austria in which they experienced living with individual host families.
Traveling in Europe, they found there was a language barrier in each of the countries they toured, though they were taught some conversational language and how to ask for directions.
The directional language is what helped Kivisto lead her team in the right direction after getting lost in Rome, she said.
Getting lost wasn’t all that bad, however. “We got some extra sight-seeing in,” she commented.
Touring the Roman Colosseum made a much greater impact on the students than anything they read about in a history book.
“It was interesting learning about it while being there,” Basney commented.
She liked seeing how old it was and that it was still standing after all these years.
“It’s like going back in time,” Kivisto said.
Batzel really enjoyed seeing the mountains in Austria. For her, it was just like in the “Sound of Music.” The group even toured Salzburg where part of the Von Trapp family story took place.
Bistodeau enjoyed her home-stay in Austria. “It was kind of nice to know how people lived there rather than just the tourist sites,” she said.
Kivisto said she was most surprised by how the students there don’t wear shoes in school, they can choose to leave them in a room near the entrance.
Basney was interested in the varying freedoms teenagers have there compared to in America.
For example, at age 16, Europeans are allowed to drink and use tobacco, but they can’t drive until they are 18.
What impacted the group the most was touring the Mauthausen concentration camp, in which nearly 200,000 prisoners passed through and at least 95,000 died there, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum encyclopedia.
“It was a powerful experience,” Linder commented.
What impacted Basney the most was seeing how the prisoners lived, learning how they were treated, and seeing where they would’ve stood when they died.
The memorial at the camp was “overwhelming” and included names of those who were killed there. Many of the prisoners have yet to be identified, Kivisto noted.
They learned that one of their People to People leaders actually had an uncle who was killed there because he rebelled against the Nazi party.
As part of their experience, the girls had to keep a daily journal, recording what they did each day, what they learned, and their reactions to it. This would also allow them to get high school credit, which is offered through the program.
All five came away with a different lesson they learned from this experience.
For Batzel, she was able to dampen some of the stereotypes she had before her visit.
She was thinking the families would be really religious and strict, and the teenagers would be the same. She quickly found out with her 14-year-old host sister that she was a typical teenager a lot like herself, though they had more freedoms than she had at 14. Her host sister also had her own stereotypes of Americans, one in which they were all skinny and partied all the time.
Basney learned to appreciate what she had back home, including the little things Americans take for granted “like toilet seats and ice.”
Linder really enjoyed learning about all of the history and seeing it for herself, along with the architecture and art.
Kivisto came out of her shell and learned to take advantage of opportunities that come her way, such as playing soccer with another group of teenagers during her trip.
“I only regret the times I decided I wouldn’t do it,” she said.
Bistodeau learned to be proud of where she comes from and her country. “My host sister was so proud of the country she lives in she wanted to show me her town,” Bistodeau said, who is also an alumnus with People to People having traveled to Costa Rica last year.
The five DC students were nominated for the People to People ambassador program, however, applications are available online, as well, at www.peopletopeople.com.