REED CITY — It’s a great, big world out there, and two Reed City teachers are making sure the people of their community have the chance to explore it.
ELA Interventionist Tracie Koopman and Foreign Language Teacher Katrina Wray are avid travelers, and for the last eight years, they’ve been guiding Reed City students, residents and any other interested parties, on summer excursions outside the U.S.
Wray said their first trip was planned at the urging of several students who were interested in visiting Spain.
At first, an out-of-country trip seemed like a long shot, because of the preparation required, but after doing a bit of research, she was able to make it happen.
Koopman was soon on board as well to help Wray chaperone. Koopman was once an exchange student in Brazil, and her passion for travel has been strong ever since, so the chance to continue visiting other countries, while sharing the experience with her fellow community members, was not one to pass up.
Trips abroad are not brand-new to Reed City. Koopman said they’d been available on and off through the years, spearheaded by previous language teachers, but she and Wray wanted to develop an ongoing program that allows participants to experience multiple countries in one junket. Although the program was jumpstarted through student interest, it’s not sponsored by Reed City Public Schools, and anyone interested in traveling has the ability to go.
“We have families that go, grandparents that go with their grandchildren, and then, of course, single travelers, and even community members,” Koopman said. “Typically we have a group of about 30 that goes on a tour.”
Koopman and Wray are glad to have such a wide variety of travelers, because the impact of the trip can be strong for every age group. They’ve traveled with many teens and adults who have never been outside the country before, and, right before their eyes, the pair watched the experience change their travelers forever.
For teens in particular, seeing other cultures in action can shape the way they see the world as they enter adulthood. Koopman said travel is more than just landmarks and foreign languages. Everything is different in countries outside the U.S., from food and clothing to how locals greet one another and schedule their day.
Koopman remembers one student who, while visiting London, shared that they had never been inside a church, or ridden on an airplane. Both were crossed off their bucket list, along with riding in a cab.
“It’s kind of neat to see how they grow through the course of the tour, too, with these new experiences,” Koopman said. “Another thing that’s cool is to watch their reactions, because we’ve had students cry when they see the Eiffel Tower.”
The program has taken travelers to several destinations across Europe, including Paris, Madrid, London, Athens and Rome. One of the more impactful locations Koopman and Wray have taken their participants is Germany, which was included in the summer 2022 itinerary. There, the group walked through a concentration camp that has been left standing since World War II, and it was a powerful moment for all who were present.
“The kids that went to the concentration camp, they’re like, ‘I’ve read about this for so long. I’ve seen movies about it, but now I’m walking where they walked,’” Koopman said. “Those are moments that we think, no one will ever regret the memories and experiences that they make, seeing in person things that they’ve only read about.”
Program participant Lyndsey Eccles said her travel experience taught her that there’s less pressure to conform in countries outside the U.S. Here, people put a lot of stock in keeping up with trends or buying certain brands, but she found that those expectations aren’t the same in other cultures.
Eccles joined the group for its July 2022 tour, which covered Italy, Greece and Turkey. Throughout the trip, she shared many conversations with their assigned tour guide, who is from Greece, and he mentioned the tendency of Americans to want to blend in with the crowd.
“I had made a comment about going to the mall, and he’s like, ‘We don’t have malls here. Americans want everybody to be the same; It’s not like that in Europe,’” she said. “Everybody’s different, and it’s welcomed. You can dress however you want, and nobody’s gonna judge you, nobody’s gonna think twice of it.”
The tour guide’s comment caused Eccles to reflect on the impact of advertising in the U.S., and how people are often persuaded to shop only at stores deemed acceptable by the majority.
Like Koopman, Eccles was an exchange student in Russia, and said it was an experience unlike any other. Her son Ayden joined her on the 2022 tour, but he’ll be traveling solo on the 2023 tour to Netherlands, Belgium, France and England. Though he’s already quite mature for his age, Eccles’ hope is that Ayden will use the trip to persist in his independence and create lasting memories.
Without a program like that of Wray and Koopman, the ability to travel may not have been feasibly for their participants. Cost can be a daunting obstacle to international travel, especially in a rural Michigan town like Reed City, so the pair does their best to alleviate the burden and make the program accessible to everyone.
“We do our homework,” Wray said. “We talk to companies and really do our best to offer the best price to our travelers.”
Ralynn Sims and her daughter Autumn visited Ireland and Scotland this summer on the COVID-delayed 2020 tour. Sims said she never imagined that she and Autumn would have the opportunity to participate in a travel program like Wray and Koopman’s. Her oldest daughter signed up to go on a trip several years ago, before the program began, but it had fallen through due to a lack of interest, and she assumed the chance wouldn’t come up again.
When Sims heard Wray and Koopman were looking to bring travel opportunities back to the community, she and Autumn were eager to be involved.
“I thought it’s very cool, because it’s a great opportunity, because they offer it to everybody, not just high schoolers,” she said. “So it’s a great opportunity for students to see other cultures and things like that. I didn’t think we would be able to do it, but I’m so glad that they’ve made a success out of it.”
Autumn’s favorite part about her tour were the vast hills in Scotland. She said they tried eating haggis at a local restaurant, but it wasn’t too appealing. The potato scones, however, were quite delicious, she said. As for favorite landmarks, Autumn was partial to the castles.
Tours are planned almost a year and a half in advance to give travelers time to save and pay for the trip. There are a few different payment plans available. Wray and Koopman said there is still room for travelers on the 2023 tour, but the 2024 tour to Spain and Portugal is already in the works.