How People to People Changed Our Family

by Julie Cohn
How People to People Changed Our Whole Family6

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We have come to the end of our journey with the People to People student ambassador program for 2014, but how does one offer gratitude for something that so profoundly changed not only our son’s life but our whole family?  This program changed the way we look at our son, how our son looks at himself, how we look at each other as a family.  It changed the way we view the world and opened our hearts and minds to the culture, history, and struggles of people half a world away.  No words or actions could ever convey exactly what this experience has meant to our family.

{Disclosure:  People to People Ambassador Programs sponsored my son’s trip and I am serving as a Special Ambassador Correspondent to share his experience. Opinions expressed here are my own.}

How People to People Changed Our Whole Family

We started our journey with People to People Student Ambassadors in late February. Nick was formally invited to join as an ambassador in mid-March and started his high school credit program immediately.  Throughout the spring, he met his teacher leaders, his fellow Celtic Cultures ambassadors, attended group meetings, worked on the many People to People requirements and projects, participated in two community service projects, and prepared for the trip.  In May, his ambassador group met two final times, presenting pre-trip projects, receiving final instructions, and celebrating at a Bon Voyage party.

Before we knew it, the day arrived for Nick to leave.  The night before he left, we had an early dinner and bed, saying our nightly family prayers one last time for a few weeks.  The alarm rang at 2:30 a.m. I had not yet gone to bed, fussing over the packing and anxious about his trip.  By 3:15 a.m., the car was packed and we were on our way to the airport, with forty-five minutes left together as a family before he walked with his ambassador group through security, onto the plane, and away from us.  He was excited and ready to go.  I was excited for him, yet sad and scared too.  Part of me wanted to stop the car and make him stay, keep him safe next to me all summer, but the exhilaration in his eyes, anxious for his new adventure, prevented me from doing so.  It was time to let him go.

When we arrived at the airport, there was much hustle and bustle as the teacher leaders checked the students into the airline, gave them their People to People ID lanyards, passed out their passports for security, and other last minute preparations.  We took photos, hugged, and said our final goodbyes.  Before I knew it, he was walking toward the security gate!  We waved goodbye. I bravely smiled so he could not see the tears, then we stood to watch the last glimpse of him before he was gone.


My husband clasped my hand and we walked slowly to the car.  I held it together (for the most part) until we got in the car, then I couldn’t hold back my tears anymore.  Our baby was leaving us!  We sat a few moments, hugging until my sobs quieted, then drove home.  By 6 a.m. his plane was in the air.  This was the hardest part of the trip for me–when he was in the air.  My husband worked from home to be close by, neither of us wanting to be alone that day, and it gave me comfort for us to be together.  We were exhausted from lack of sleep the night before, but could not sleep while he was in the air.  We found a website that tracked his flights, which I checked obsessively, monitoring his flight from Phoenix to Newark, then on to Edinburgh, Scotland.

Throughout the day, the thought that he was moving farther away gripped me and I would start to weep again, but my husbands’ gentle words reminded me that Nick was in good hands, and I knew in my heart he was.  About 7 p.m. Phoenix time, we saw that his plane landed in Edinburgh, and received a text message from his teacher leaders shortly after.  We were so relieved they had arrived safely, we laughed through happy tears.  His adventure was now beginning, and we were so excited for him!


A New Adventure

As each day passed, it got easier having him away from us.  Though we did not hear from him often (wi-fi was not the best), we did hear from the teacher leaders, who tried to update the private Facebook page they set up for families as often as possible.  One time we did not hear from him for five days…gulp.  We survived.  Because we had a chance to get to know the teacher leaders before the trip, we had complete confidence that he was at all times safe and well-cared for.

Photo by Julie Donick

When we did hear from him, it was a quick note on the iPhone through What’s App.  We missed his voice, but when we saw his smiling face in the photos the teacher leaders were posting on Facebook, we knew he was healthy and happy.  Nick was having a ball, learning so many new things about the history and culture of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and England. My 14-year-old was visiting historic castles, learning about sheep herding and shearing, visiting the Loch Ness and Giants Causeway, shedding tears at the Peace Wall in Belfast, sword fighting in Warwick, cutting peat for fuel for families in Ireland, and eating haggis, which he would never have done at home!

He was making friends, learning to share the bathroom with four other boys, learning to interact with people of many different cultures and personalities, all things he was not familiar with as an only child at home in Arizona.  He also had to quickly learn how to take responsibility for himself and his actions while in a foreign country, learn how to manage finances, and learn to be respectful of others around him.  He was not just traveling for the sake of traveling.  He was learning life and people skills, all things he would need for college and beyond.

Photo by Julie Donick

The last night of his trip, I met Nick and his group in London.  This is a night I will remember forever.  The rest of the group was returning to the United States early the next morning, but Nick was continuing on with me throughout England. I met his group at the theater in West End after Wicked to pick him up.

As we prepared to leave, the kids gathered around Nick, taking turns saying goodbye.  There was so much hugging and crying, including the teacher leaders.  I cried too, excited to see him, yet amazed and honored that this group loved Nick as much as I did.  The friendships formed on this trip were bonds of a lifetime. Any sadness I felt having him away from us disappeared, knowing he was so loved while with this group.

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Photo by Julie Donick

How People to People Changed Him

After Nick came back, we noticed a change in him.  He was no longer a boy, he was a man, with the confidence that comes with experiencing and navigating life.  While on the trip he was given a lot of responsibility, and we were pleasantly surprised at how dependable he was with his valuables, how careful he was with his money, and how mature he presented himself.

HIs attitude about travel changed too. He had several other trips later in the summer and we noticed he was more easy-going while traveling, especially with air travel, which had previously been a stress for him.  He was more daring when it came to trying new foods, more willing to compromise.  His trip abroad changed him to be more confident and compassionate toward others around him.

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Photo by Julie Donick


He had a new feeling of self-reliance, formed by the accomplishment he felt from traversing a 66 foot long, 98 feet high narrow rope bridge, white water rafting on a river in Scotland, witnessing real-life political conflicts in Belfast, rappelling an 80 foot tower in Wales, participating in community service work in the peat fields of Ireland, confidently navigating the Tube in London, and traveling halfway around the world without Mom and Dad by his side.  He was also much more interested in what was happening around the world, showing an interest in world politics and conflicts, and with much more compassion for those who do not enjoy the freedoms we have here in the United States.

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Photo by Julie Donick

How We Changed

This trip was a precursor to a time when Nick would leave us for college and beyond.  Life will be an adjustment when he goes, but we now know we will all be fine.  Through his (and our) People to People experience, we discovered the friendships, adventures, and global awareness he developed have made Nick a better world citizen, a young man with compassion and character.  As a family, we discovered that even when we are not together, our bonds of love are just as strong. As a People to People family, we discovered that it is our responsibility to represent our country in the most positive way we can, just as Dwight D. Eisenhower envisioned when he created the People to People program in 1956.  His world may have expanded through this trip, but so had ours, with responsibility as world citizens to care what happens to others around the world.

A special thank you to all the teacher leaders–Julie D., Wendy F., Katie B., and Lindsay P. for keeping Nick safe and creating such a fun experience for the ambassadors.   We could not have done this without you and are forever grateful.

If you are thinking of having your child go on a People to People student ambassador program and have questions, please feel free to reach out to me, I would be happy to answer any questions you have!  For more information about the People to People Ambassador programs, please visit their website and their blog.  You can also find them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Read about our entire People to People journey here:

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Jennifer Van Huss 08/11/2014 at 2:02 pm

What an experience! It sounds like an awesome trip!

Priscilla - She's Cookin' 08/11/2014 at 11:32 am

I wish I had known about People to People when my daughter was in HS! Her first trip abroad without us was a 10-day trip with her French teacher and other students from her school through France with a day or two in neighboring countries. It was her graduation present. Since then she has done a semester abroad in Japan and a 2-month internship in China – all great experiences (none sponsored). We still don’t like having her that far away, but we don’t worry as much as we used to 🙂

Amy @GrinningCheektoCheek 08/11/2014 at 2:00 pm

That sounds like a fantastic program! I’m glad that your son had such a great time there 🙂 I’ll have to keep this in mind for when my boys grow up just a bit (we’ll start by tackling Kindergarten and Preschool, first!)

maria 08/12/2014 at 4:56 am

Sounds like a remarkable journey! My teen is also wanting to go. The price is costly so I’m not sure but we are definitely looking into it.

Pam 08/13/2014 at 12:45 pm

My daughter also traveled this summer with P2P. Her group went to Italy, France and Spain. She had a wonderful time and hopefully made life long new friends. The leaders were great about posting photos each day. Although we didn’t communicate much with our daughter, seeing her smiling face in those photos put my mind at ease – she is having a good time… It was a great experience for her… but also for her dad and I. What you wrote, is exactly how I felt. It is expensive but it is worth every penny.

Diana Flynn 08/14/2014 at 9:21 pm

Wow! What an amazing experience!

Mel 04/17/2019 at 3:19 pm

Thank you so much for sharing your story! My daughter will participate in a P2P delegation this summer. Every little bit of addition insight will help her and our whole family make the most of this opportunity!

Julie Cohn 04/17/2019 at 5:03 pm

Thanks Mel. This trip truly was life changing for my son. Five years later, we still keep in touch with his teachers from the trip. If you have any questions, please reach out to me at I would love to assist!

Ellen Stuart 04/17/2019 at 6:10 pm

What a beautiful experience! I totally understand the mixture of feelings that you experienced. When my daughter was in 8th grade, through our school system, she participated in an exchange program. She travelled to Japan with 7 classmates and 2 chaperones. She lived with a family there for 2 weeks. I am afraid I was not as strong as you were. I literally felt like I would have a heart attack until I knew she was safely on the ground. She also loved every minute of her time in Japan with her exchange family. We had Satsuki with us for a week in the Fall and fell in love with her. At the end of the school year Julia spent one week with Satsuki’s family and the group traveled to Kyoto and Hiroshima. Travel is the best way to grow as a person, and I will be forever grateful that we were able to afford this opportunity for her.

Julie Cohn 04/17/2019 at 6:39 pm

What a wonderful experience for your daughter! I think if more people traveled, they would have more compassion for those of different cultures. ♥


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