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April 25, 2023

By Kristen Perrone, Communications Manager

ECFS students are accustomed to questioning and exploring the world around them, but over the last few years, that exploration has been more limited to their backyard of New York City. Now, three years after COVID-19 paused international travel, Spring Recess trips for Fieldston Middle and Fieldston Upper students returned.

Although pre-pandemic years offered several options of educational and wide-ranging destinations, Library Assistant and International Trips Coordinator Tom Carey opted for a smaller approach in 2023 to ease back into the tradition. Fieldston Middle language students would participate in a homestay program in Spain while a Fieldston Upper group traveled to Japan for an expansive itinerary, including a cultural exchange with local high school students. With only one trip option per division, students’ interest ran high, assuring organizers that the future of these excursions is bright.

“It was good to see the excitement from the students and the parents/guardians, and I felt that having one trip in the Middle School and one in the Upper School was a nice way to break the ice and try to return to normalcy,” Carey says. 

After arriving in Madrid at the start of Spring Recess, a group of 8th Grade students toured the old center of the city called Madrid de los Austrias, including Parque de El Retro, Plaza Mayor, and the Palacio, and the Real Madrid fútbol team’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium. The next day brought them to the seaside town of Conil de la Frontera to meet their homestay families and begin several days of Spanish classes, surfing opportunities, and flamenco lessons. Staying with local families gave students a chance to test their oral language skills and attempt to communicate almost exclusively in Spanish.

“One part of the Spain trip that was really fun was staying with families,” Mia S. ’27 recalls. “This led to more of an immersive experience, which I don’t think we would have gotten from staying at a hotel.” 

A group of Ethical Culture Fieldston Middle School students pose in Spain

“The Spanish trip is a unique experience that allows students to extend their Spanish learning out of the classroom and gain a true learning experience that will last forever,” says Language Teacher, Academic Support After School Program (ASAP) Coordinator, and trip leader Clara Gorman. “This homestay experience allowed them to fully immerse themselves in true Spanish culture, practice meaningful and practical conversations, and gain new experiences all while making lifelong connections with the family and their peers.”

The group also attended a fútbol, or soccer, game between the United States and Spain and learned how to cook paella. On a visit to Gibraltar, known for its wild monkey population, students were able to speak English again as they reached the top of the Rock of Gibraltar to take in views of Africa. 

“I’m so happy I had the opportunity to go on this trip,” says Madison M. ’27. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I had so much fun at the beach, spending time with my friends, meeting new people, and everything in between.”

“I thought that Spain was a great experience to see my friends in a different setting,” Clarke G. ’27 shares. 

Meanwhile, Fieldston Upper students from all grades started their trip to Japan in Tokyo, where they toured the Imperial Palace, Tokyo Station, the forest of the Meiji Shrine, and the Harajuku and Ginza districts. They also focused on local art through designing their own washi, or Japanese paper, and exploring the history of anime and manga at the Suginami Animation Museum. Other highlights included visits to Mount Fuji and the Great Buddha statue of Kamakura, a picnic under cherry blossom trees in Ueno Park, and a demonstration from two retired sumo wrestlers at a sumo museum. 

“At the end of the demonstration, willing students donned sumo suits and then enjoyed a match with one of the sumo wrestlers,” says History Teacher Paul Nam, who served as the trip leader. “The most memorable match was with Arianna LM. ’26 and Jeein C. ’26 managing to pull off a surprise victory!”

The role of food in Japanese life also became essential to the students’ experience. Meals included shabu shabu (a hotpot dish of meat and vegetables), okonomiyaki (a savory pancake dish), chankonabe (a sumo stew), and agekushiyaki (deep-fried skewered meats and vegetables). The group also visited the Ramen Museum in Shin Yokohama, where they learned about and sampled ramen.

A group of Ethical Culture Fieldston students pose in front of a Buddha statue in Japan

“It was so interesting to see the contrast between Tokyo and New York City, where I live,” shares Kai KS. ’25. “My favorite part of the trip was the food. From trying dozens of local food stands at the Senso-Ji temple to having a delicious salmon and miso soup breakfast at Denny’s, the food is what I remember to be the best part of my experience in Tokyo.”

Additionally, the Fieldston Upper students visited Keio High School in Hiyoshi, a school associated with Keio University, which Nam describes as “the Yale of Japan.” Meeting with about 27 Keio students, the Fieldston Upper group offered them school T-shirts as thanks for their hospitality. 

“Jetlag and all, I had a wonderful time in Japan, and the people’s unconditional warmth made me feel at home seven thousand miles away,” says Lamine C. ’24.

While spending time with friends and exploring a new place is an initial draw to a Spring Recess trip, students’ cultural immersion and recognizing pieces of home in another country are clearly the greatest benefits. 

“It allows students to expand their learning and knowledge outside of the classroom, apply what they’ve learned to real-world situations, and gain a true understanding of another culture halfway across the world,” Gorman says.

“Travel can really change your life,” Carey agrees, noting its opportunity “to really see another culture and get a chance to experience this as a group and open [your] eyes individually.” 

Plans for next year’s Spring Recess trips are already in the works. It’s safe to say that Fieldston students will have their passports ready for another chance to explore the globe.