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Laura McMaster: Championing Student Travel

Nov 7, 2023

Since 2010, Laura McMaster has been travelling with students to destinations within North America and Europe, opening the world to more than 400 of her Miles MacDonell Collegiate (Winnipeg, MB) students.

Since 2010, Laura McMaster has been travelling with students to destinations within North America and Europe, opening the world to more than 400 of her Miles MacDonell Collegiate (Winnipeg, MB) students.

These efforts led to McMaster being awarded the 2023 SYF Visionary Award, given annually to someone who demonstrates a commitment to enriching student lives through travel and/or contributes to the advancement of our industry through education, volunteer activities or community service.

McMaster works closely with tour provider EF Educational Tours to plan custom itineraries that engage her students and fit family budgets, while also volunteering her own time to fundraise, host pre-departure meetings, coach other educators through student travel, and engage in professional development activities.

How did you get started with student travel?

I was teaching a course called Theory of Knowledge, which had a unit about art and beauty. I took students to our local art gallery on a field trip, which was fine, but when I realized colleagues were taking students to France to speak French I figured I could take kids to see the great art galleries of the world. Of course, no one can spend days in an art gallery, so my itineraries obviously broadened. I started in New York City, at the MOMA and the MET, and now my preference is for Italy, where art and beauty seem to be on every street corner. I have also loved going to Greece, and I found that combining Greece and Italy gives students real insight on history, including the history of art and architecture.

What do you enjoy about student travel?

I love the opportunity to offer these amazing experiences to students. I also really enjoy building a great team of teacher chaperones to come with me. I love to see new connections emerging between students. Life “on the bus” can be a way of breaking down some of the lines that form in a school culture. Students who never would have met become thick as thieves. Some find themselves as leaders. Some are suddenly humbled as they are unsettled by the familiar. All of these experiences are valuable!

Do you have any big travel highlights?

On my first trip to Europe, we landed in Frankfurt in the middle of  an airline strike. 700 flights had been cancelled. We were told we “might” get a flight to Rome the next day. We chose instead to get on a train: Frankfurt to Basel, Basel to Milan, Milan to Rome, arriving only about 18 hours behind schedule. We learned so much in that experience! First, I was astonished at the level of trust the students showed; they were entirely confident that I was in control of the situation and would make decisions in their best interest. It really motivated me to be sure that I was always deserving of that trust. Second, we had to leave our bags behind, so we all learned about packing light and what we really needed. Finally, we learned that when adventures arise while travelling, they can be really positive! Most of my students had never been on a train! We ended up calling that tour the “Planes, Trains and Gondolas” tour of Europe.

What recent challenges have you had to overcome in regards to travel?

Most of the challenges post-pandemic have arisen from those who aren’t familiar with group travel. I was entirely confident the demand would still be there, but our senior administration thought that parents would be very risk-averse. However, I’m happy to report that my first post-pandemic tour sold out on the first day. We had so many students on the wait list that we duplicated the tour for 2024, and it sold out as well.

The new focus on equity and inclusion has created an unexpected challenge, with some critics wanting to remove international travel entirely because it is not accessible to all students. I think this is a misguided attitude, and would like to see all of us instead focus on opening up opportunities for those who wish to travel and cannot because of cost. We can achieve so much if we work together! Fundraising, scholarships, grants—let’s focus on widening opportunities rather than narrowing.

What do you appreciate about EF Educational Tours?

I can’t say enough about EF. When we landed in Frankfurt on that crazy day, an EF rep was waiting for us, and stayed with us until we met our Tour Director in Milan. I have worked with a number of Tour Consultants and they have all been sharp, friendly, organized and ready to answer all my questions. When it comes to student travel, I’m known as “Sarge” because I run a tight team and want everything super organized. Everyone at EF appreciates this and works to help me do all the preparation that makes a tour run smoothly. EF also offers so many learning opportunities, and I’m grateful to be able to do some leading as well, supporting other group leaders who are getting ready for big adventures. Shout out to my EF family: Joanne, Shawna, Roxy, Leyla, and my amazing TD Alex Munera. EF’s motto is “travel changes lives”. I’ve seen it happen over and over. It has certainly changed mine.

What are you looking forward to next?

I’m excited for travel this year: a trip to New York with my family, a professional development opportunity in Paris, and a student tour to Italy in March. However, I’m most looking forward to moving into a new chapter of my professional life. I won’t be a classroom teacher forever, but I am actively looking for ways to stay engaged in student travel. I will be living in a rural area, and am interested in how I can start supporting travel in the community even when I won’t be in the classroom.

This could be especially interesting in the rural area where one school might not have enough kids to make a tour viable, but if I can help multiple schools connect so travel is possible, I would find that really fulfilling. I am at a stage of life, both personal and professional, where I am taking an attitude of “YES!” to any opportunity that comes along. Who knows what I’ll say yes to next!

This story was originally published in the November 2023 issue of Teach & Travel.

Photo Courtesy of Laura McMaster.