Traveling is where her heart is
When Diane Spencer had a stroke six years ago, she had to learn to walk, eat and drink again. And exactly two years, two months and two days after the life-threatening health scare, the Inza R. Wood Middle School Spanish teacher sat on the Great Wall of China and wept.
Travel is not something Spencer is willing to give up.
"Getting back into traveling was a big push for me in my rehab," Spencer said. "It's something that's been really important to me."
Spencer hopes to instill that same passion within her students.
Through Education First — an international education company that focuses on educational travel — Spencer plans to take a group of middle school students to Costa Rica during the summer of 2020. Students who sign up for the trip will head to Tortuguero, a village on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast where sea turtles come to lay eggs. During the trip students will visit an organic farm, learn about solar, wind and hydro power, kayak, zipline and explore hot springs.
"There's just something about Costa Rica that's always called me," Spencer said.
And it's not the first time she's taken a group of students out of the country.
In 2015, Spencer took Wood students to Europe. The following year, she took students to Costa Rica and since then, Spencer has tried to recruit other teachers to take students on trips.
Spencer said the Europe trip was more focused on seeing castles, museums and "pretty things," while Central America was more geared toward hands-on learning.
Last year, teachers traveled with students to Panama and this coming summer a social studies teacher is taking students to Peru.
"I would like to build a program where this is just what we do here at Wood," Spencer said, adding that she would like to find time to organize a travel club. "Getting students engaged with the community here and abroad."
While traveling to Costa Rica, students have an opportunity to earn high school credit for creating a project on their topic of choice. Projects topics might include recycling, sustainability or social media use. Students do research on their project while abroad and then complete it upon returning home.
"It's about learning, not just tourism. Tourists just come to take pictures of things. Travelers are going to go experience culture, meet people and learn something," Spencer said, adding that she wants to create travelers instead of tourists. "It (the project) is intended for students to explore an area of their interest and how it relates to our world."
Spencer's sense of travel and love of different cultures stemmed from an international fair at Lewis and Clark College Spencer attended with her mom starting at age 4.
When Spencer was in high school, she spent her senior year in France, thanks to the financial help of her grandmother.
And while Spencer knows abroad opportunities are not financially feasible to all families, she hopes to create scholarships to help families in need.
"I'm also part of our school equity team and I'm conscious and aware of the fact that this trip is outside the possibility for a lot of our kids at the school," Spencer said. "I think there's always more people that want to help or would help if they knew. I think that most of the time people just don't know."
The Costa Rica trip will cost about $4,000 per student, which includes everything from travel fees to food to lodging. The trip is just shy of two weeks and students can sign up for the trip throughout the next year.
"I don't want the group to get so large that I'm not connected with each student every day," said Spencer, adding the trips are the first time many students have flown or been away from their families for extended time. She said she might cap the amount at 20 students.
"One of the things our district does that I love is that all kids have an opportunity to do language," Spencer said. "I think that at this age they're starting their language experience. ... I think it (traveling) can change and steer. ... The sooner you open their eyes, the better."
Spencer said travel helps students gain confidence and that students learn to persevere and rely on themselves.
A quote that encompasses Spencer's love of travel, and one that has stuck with her, says: "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page."