WILLMAR -- A little education in European economics and politics greeted 27 Willmar students who went to Spain on their spring break trip this year.
A general transportation strike and a riot in the street outside their hotel provided memorable experiences and lots of walking.
The 17 Willmar students in China with teacher Todd Lynum saw another type of society, where the right to strike and demonstrate in the streets isn't a given. They walked over stones where people have been walking for more than 1,000 years.
Willmar language students have gone on overseas trips for decades. As the school's language instruction has changed, so have the trips. Traveling to France or Germany is in the past, as those languages are no longer taught in Willmar. The Spain trip has been taken every other year for many years, but this is the first time a group has gone to China.
The Spanish students traveled to Spain from March 25 to April 6 with teachers Marla Schroeder, Kay Nilson and Christena Svoboda-Ojeda. This is the first time the tour spent an extended time in Barcelona, which gave them a chance to experience the ebb and flow of daily life.
Of the general strike, teacher Marla Schroeder said, "I think it was a good learning experience."
Graffiti and stickers were all over the city, said senior Matthew Smith. The unrest was related to protests against government austerity measures.
The students even stopped to watch some of the peaceful protests, said senior Jimmy Unger.
Later on, though, things became less peaceful. They watched out their hotel room windows as police officers with riot shields and batons waded into a crowd of protesters in the street. Garbage cans and recycling bins were lit on fire producing columns of black smoke.
"They were all grounded for the night, and I think they were happy to be," Schroeder said. Several emails were sent home, assuring parents that all were safe.
"It was still amazing to see everything else," Unger said. They got to see modern political problems and learn the country's history while visiting museums, cathedrals and landmarks.
They visited the Barcelona soccer stadium and enjoyed watching Flamenco dancing in Madrid.
Many buildings in Spain were built in the 1500s or 1600s, which sounds old until the students on the Chinese trip weigh in.
They climbed a section of the Great Wall in China, some parts of it are more than 1,000 years old, and the "new" parts are about 600 years old.
"It was amazing to be on it," said Jenna Jacobson, a senior.
Walking and climbing on the wall can be difficult, she said, because it has uneven steps and in some areas, no steps. Still, he'd do it again, said A.J. Derouin, a junior.
In China, the students were able to visit families for dinner, to see their homes and learn more about how they live. It was interesting to see "the contrast of cultures," Derouin said. The students were in China from March 29 to April 6.
The Willmar students traveled with American groups from Atlanta and Utah while in China. The Willmar students were the most conversant in Chinese.
"It was interesting to travel with people from other parts of the country," Jacobson said.
Students from both groups got a chance to practice speaking the languages they study. All have to be at Level 3 or higher in their classes to go on the trip.
The students said they found that people appreciated their efforts. Jacobson said the Chinese people were often surprised that an American would be trying to speak Chinese.
"They appreciated it, but some people wanted to practice their English," she said.
Lynum said that has been his experience, too. It can take a while for a person's surprise to wear off so they can pay attention to what he is saying, he said.
Their relatively limited vocabulary was a problem at times, and it was hard to follow the speed of a native speaker. Another problem? "We're learning Mandarin," Derouin said "They could be speaking one of 64 dialects."
Austen Hilding, a senior, said they would go to restaurants during their free time in Spain and talk to their waiters and other people. In Barcelona, the people spoke Catalan, but "if you spoke Spanish, they would speak Spanish back," Hilding added.
"I think they found that a smile goes a long way," Schroeder said.
Lynum said the students represented themselves and their school on the trip by showing an interest and respect for the ancient sites they visited.
"They are excellent travelers," he said, and the Spanish teachers nodded agreement. Lynum praised "their willingness, within some reasonable limits, to try different foods."
They were adventurous in their eating, he said, but shied away from some of the street food, choosing not to eat chicken feet or sexual organs from a variety of animals.
Both groups said they enjoyed the food on their trips.
"This group was very brave," Schroeder said of the students in Spain.
"There was definitely some really good food," Hilding said.
Though the jet lag was a problem after arriving back home, the students said they were glad they had gone on the trips and would do it again.
"It opens you to travel," Smith said. Several said it makes them more interested in studying abroad when they are in college.
Jacobson and Derouin said they would be more comfortable speaking to someone who speaks Chinese after their trip.
"The only thing I would change -- I would have wanted to see more, because the country's so big," she said.