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Study abroad trip to Normandy, Europe changes Georgia Highlands College students in unexpected ways

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It was truly the trip of a lifetime.

At the beginning of June, seven Georgia Highlands College students and two faculty members went to London to begin a trip organized by EF College Tours. The tour followed the route of World War II soldiers and was part of a Western Civilization class at the college. The study abroad trip was open to students not taking the class as well as those who were.

After two days in London, they left by bus on June 5 to Portsmouth where they took a ferry across the English Channel and landed in Caen in Normandy, France.

It was along that coast on June 6, 1944, where the Allies’ D-Day invasion began during World War II.

Already excited about the planned tour, the group got an especially thrilling treat when the tour guides secured invitations for the group to attend the ceremonies at the American cemetery on Omaha Beach. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande were scheduled to speak and security was exceptionally tight.

“The highway was shut down and our bus had a police escort to get to Omaha Beach,” said Bronson Long, professor at Georgia Highlands. “We saw Marine One land and the Secret Service was there, the military was there. It was huge. It was standing room only.”

The group attended the ceremonies in Normandy on the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Surrounded by veterans of the war and 51 heads of state, the group was a little overwhelmed.

“I think we all cried, it was so emotional,” said Megan Broome, one of the students. “It was just incredible that we got to be there and experience that.”

Broome, who was enjoying her first trip overseas was especially grateful for the experience.

“I’ve never even been out of the southeastern states, so it was really special for me,” she said. “I think it was really amazing that while listening to President Hollande, he spoke in French of course, and I don’t understand French, but it was still so affecting because you could feel the emotion coming through.”

Another student who went on the trip, even though she had more travel experience, agreed.

“It was a once in a lifetime thing,” said Annie Hill. “My family is big into travel and I’ve been to England and France, but this was different. I am a political science major and I want to focus on international affairs. My dream is to be a diplomat. To get to see all of those people together, that was kind of a big deal for me.”

After the ceremony, the tour group visited Omaha Beach and the cemetery.

“The beach was very emotional, too,” said Broome. “You walk into the water and feel how cold it is and you think about how the soldiers were in that water and fighting.”

At the cemetery, they found the graves of Quint Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

“These are the sons of President Teddy Roose velt,” said Long. “Theodore Jr. was a general who died one month after landing in France during WWII. Quint was an aviator and killed during the war. The cemetery was very crowded of course, and we took photos of the graves and were walking away.”

The group ran into a WWII veteran as they were walking away from the Roosevelts’ graves. They asked him what he was searching for, hoping to help. The veteran told them he was looking for the grave of his general — Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

The group proudly took this man back to the Roosevelts’ graves.

“We had the honor of taking him back there and talking with him,” said Long. “Turns out, he lied about his age, he was only 17 when he joined up, and he was a radio operator. He told us his story about having to wear a long pole that stuck up that basically made him a target because he was the one trying to find the enemy’s position and radio it back to the troops. He served in Patton’s army and then went to Germany. His story was amazing.”

Broome agreed.

“I remember asking him what his first thought was when he heard the war was over,” said Broome. “He said, ‘I get to go home.’ Another vet told me that he’d do it all over again. Hearing their stories in that place was amazing.”

After Normandy, the group journeyed to other spots in France.

“We were able to see bombed places that were never restored,” said Hill. “It was almost like traveling back in time. You experience those emotions and the tour guide told us the story of her father who was a member of the bomber squad. We also were given one day when we were able to choose what we wanted to do.”

Hill chose to stay in a group with Long, who took those students on a more insider’s look at Paris.

“I lived in Paris for a year,” explained Long. “You get to see other facets of the city if you live there. I was able to help with the translation and show the students another side of the city.”

Hill said that experience was special for her, too.

“You get to see Paris from a local’s perspective, which is something you don’t get as a tourist,” she said. “You get to see what it is like to be part of it, not a foreigner.”

Broome also enjoyed the trip to Versailles.

“It was absolutely beautiful,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The ceilings were just filled with artwork. You don’t know where to look first, it is all so beautiful.”

This has definitely given Broome a travel bug, she said.

“I was inspired by this trip,” she said. “Now I want to go everywhere. I am so thankful for these amazing memories and the experience. I think you learn so much about yourself and another country when you get to travel like this. I was left thinking how similar we all are. Even though we are across the ocean, we still have so much in common.”