Greetings from Denver, Colorado! My name is Natasha Kasprzyk, and I’ve been an English teacher for the past 12 years. Currently, my home-away-from-home is Chaparral High School in Parker, CO. I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois and have been living in Denver for the past nine years.
I led my first trip abroad in March 2015. Eight of my students and I traveled to Rome, Sorrento, Pompeii, and Capri. What inspired me to take this first trip with students is not an easy question to answer, given that there were so many factors that led to that moment…I liken it to throwing a bunch of ingredients into a slow cooker, which eventually turn into a delicious dish when they’re good and ready:
- A teacher salary that, often times, barely pays the bills
- Watching Julia Roberts eat her way through Italy in Eat Pray Love
- Reading a This I Believe essay by Jim Haynes called “Inviting the World to Dinner”
- Wishing I had gotten to go on the choir trip to the British Isles when I was in high school
- Fond memories of the unique bonds I created at overnight camp in Wisconsin and the all-girls high school I attended in Illinois
- Realizing that my desire to show students the world through my curriculum is good, but finding a way to bring them into that world would be better
Once I realized that I could travel AND offer teenagers a unique bonding experience, I decided to bring a small group of students overseas. Bombardment and convenience led me to partner with a big, budget company. I had been getting postcards from them for years (in retrospect, I think their marketing budget far outweighs their services).
Typically, the kids I teach do not come from families who live comfortably enough to pay for trips like this with ease. One of my Italy kids handed every single paycheck over to her mom to pay for most of her trip. Another student’s mom is a widow, raising three kids on her own, but felt this trip was so important for her son that she made it happen. Another student was homeless his first two years of high school. Every dime they earned went to this experience of a lifetime.
We had an AMAZING time, and our tour guide and local guides were lovely…yet I felt like so much of our joy happened in spite of the tour company.
- The food was terrible. We understood there would be cultural differences between American and Italian meals, but for the love – would it have killed them to give my kids more protein?!
- Traveling with 40 kids from other schools (many of whom were middle school students who didn’t appreciate the gift their parents gave them) was overwhelming.
- Having to spend 2+ hours on a bus each day going back and forth from the hotel and city center was a waste of time, and our hotels were in the middle of nowhere, so there was nothing to do with our free time at night.
- I felt the company projected a lack of professionalism , whether that meant miscalculating tour guide tips, how they let us know we needed to be put on a different trip, and their response to my frustrations about the food (“We’ll make a note of that.”).
The combination of these factors led me to do extensive research on other tour companies, and the one that stood out to me the most was ACIS.
My experience with ACIS so far: fantastic. My initial contact was Chad Stellmacher, and the time he took to email and talk with me, as well as the enthusiasm he projected in those conversations, was amazing. He put me in touch with three seasoned ACIS teacher travelers, all of whom were happy to talk to me and give me the positive details I needed to solidify my initial feeling about ACIS: a tour company that’s different from the rest.
My nerves ran wild (!!!) during the recruitment process, and Jeannie was my rock. I’m so thankful for her, and I trust her, which is something I couldn’t ever say about my former tour company.
ACIS trips are a bit more expensive than the budget company I used, that’s true. And yes, I did say that my students and their parents work hard to make the trips happen, but the difference in cost of a few hundred dollars brings this trip to the level my students deserve, and that belief was solidified during my training weekend in Barcelona!
- Within an hour of arriving in Barcelona, I got to meet Jeannie – in another country, no less! That was fantastic.
- From the moment we got to the hotel, I KNEW my instincts about this company were spot on: our rooms were ready, we dropped off our bags, and we were off on a bike tour along the beach and through the parks of Barcelona – what a wonderful way to start this adventure!
- Our first dinner was at a tapas restaurant, and when we walked in, I realized that the place was all about US. Tapas plates were EVERYWHERE! Remember when the kids in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory got to the room with the chocolate river, and they realized that everything in that room was edible? I felt like that’s where I was, but in Spain!
- The most amazing part of that evening, though, was meeting Peter Jones, President of ACIS. I was pleasantly stunned that he was there! The message that sent was loud and clear: he cares about his teachers.
- Our tour of the Torres winery and the subsequent wine tasting was informative and fun, and the lunch…I’m an English teacher, but I’m having trouble finding words to describe how absolutely delicious the food was. “Exquisite” doesn’t do it justice!
- After dinner, it hit me how great it was to be in a hotel in city center, given we had the option to make the most of our free time at night, even if that free time simply involved hot chocolate and churros, or finding a pair of shoes I saw earlier that day. Had we been in the suburbs…well, I guess I would have spent the evening trying to interpret what was on TV…
- Our breakfasts (yep, still talking about food) were great – cereal, bread, eggs, fruit, yogurt, ham, salami, pastries, coffee, juice – no one could possibly be hungry after perusing that buffet!
- The training was informative, meaningful, down-to-earth…and concise. Our ACIS leaders respected that while some of us may not be experts when it comes to international travel with students, we are experienced educators and are professional enough to take advantage of ACIS’s expertise in this field.
On the morning of our last full day, I went to talk to Julie, one of our ACIS reps. I let her know how much I loved the lunch at the winery, and it would have been totally fine had they just given us the first course. She said, “Oh, no. That’s not what we do. The lunch in its entirety – that’s what we do. The first course was great, right? And then it just got better? That’s what we do for you. That’s what this company is all about.”
Once I got home, had a good night’s sleep, and reflected on the trip in its entirety with Julie’s words still in my ears, I knew that ACIS isn’t just a travel company – it’s a group of people who truly want the best for their teachers and student travelers.
Read about how Natasha’s trip with her students went a few months later.