At this time last year, Junior Hailey Johnson received a letter of nomination from People to People not quite knowing what to expect. After researching the travel-abroad ambassador program, a selection process along with monthly meetings to prepare, she and 32 other teens from the San Antonio area were destined for Hethro Airport in London, England. From there, she would spend nearly three weeks away from her family living with people she had never met in person and traveling throughout the British Isles.
“It was a really great opportunity. I’m glad my parents allowed me to have it,” Hailey said of the June 17-July 5 trip. “The trip gave me a better perspective of the world and my life.”
Before the trip, Hailey had never traveled outside the United States. She said she was not nervous except about “flying overseas.”
People to People creates more than 100,000 service projects worldwide for the student ambassadors to carry out, rotating regions each year.
“We cut peat for the elderly in Ireland one morning in a bog,” Hailey said. “We also hung out with some kids in Ireland for the afternoon.”
Service projects were intermingled with fun and education as well, including white-water rafting in Scotland and experiencing other cultural events and tours.
“One day we went to a Gaelic football field and four players tried to teach us,” Hailey said. “I was really horrible at it, and my team ended up losing.”
In England and Ireland, Gaelic football is a popular spectator sport, often described as a mixture of basketball, soccer and Australian Rules football and played with 15 men on each side and goals resembling rugby posts with a net on the bottom part. Players are allowed to kick, punch and bounce the ball and attempt to get it over the bar or in the net.
According to the People to People website, the organization’s student ambassadors are “expected to create a positive impression of our country and culture” … and “return home with a new perspective on the world.”
When Hailey received her nomination letter last fall, she researched People to People at its website at http://www.peopletopeople.com and found it had a good reputation, which reassured both her and her parents.
According to an email from People to People, students interested in traveling and serving as ambassadors should start the process in October because “space fills fast for each delegation and beginning now will ensure their spot on the delegation of their choice.” Costs vary according to which region ambassadors visit, and scholarships are available – especially for those who begin early.
“When she decides she’s going to do something, she does it,” Science teacher and Hailey’s mother Melanie Johnson said. “I honestly just sort of went along with it; she had to make the deposit with the admission application with her own money, and I didn’t think the interview would go well, but it did. So now all of a sudden we’ve let her go to Europe. I would have been happy that she was selected and could’ve gone, (but then decided) to stay home.”
The Johnsons set up international calling and texting to keep up with each other every other evening while still paying attention to the six-hour time difference.
“If I hadn’t had that, it would have been terrible,” Mrs. Johnson said. “It sort of prepared me for Rhett (Hailey’s older brother who graduated in May) being gone – the empty next. It was so quiet (because) he was gone a lot of the time she was gone as well.”
Hailey stayed with a host family; she visited the British Parliament, took ship and boat rides, rode Europe’s tallest Ferris wheel called the London Eye and scaled a castle wall.
“Everyone was really nice,” she said. “My home stay family was super-sweet.”
She also met many acquaintances, four of whom she continues to keep in touch with; they have met up a couple of times since their summer trip.
Hailey said she would like to travel with her future job and would recommend the People to People program to other students.
“You should be mature, responsible and able to be away from home for a long period time,” she explained.
Mrs. Johnson said Hailey seemed “five years older when she returned” and called the trip “an awesome experience.”
“(She gained) more appreciation for the freedoms and things we have here,” Mrs. Johnson said. “(She brought home) a wealth of information – different culture, monies, customs, weather, heritage – but she loves history anyway.”
Karnes City High School Sophomore Lauren Kelley participates in UIL Journalism and contributes to the school’s newspaper, the Badger Times.