Gainesville High School student Jessica May was one of thousands chosen to serve as a People to People Student Ambassador last summer.

According to its official website, People to People Ambassador Programs was founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, to offer “extraordinary, life-changing educational travel opportunities for students, athletes, educators and professionals.”

Nominated by an anonymous teacher, May was the only Cooke County student to be accepted into People to People.

When she received an acceptance letter in the mail last school year, May had no idea how powerful one piece of paper could be.

“Little did I know, the envelope would offer the best experience of my life,” wrote May in her report of the trip.

May spent 19 days in Europe, during which she was classified as a United States Ambassador. Not only did she receive high school credit while in Europe, but she also earned college credit through Eastern Washington University.

However prior to leaving, May first had to complete her Ambassadorial classes online and 15 exams with a perfect score.

“I didn’t realize how much work it would take to actually be able to go on the trip to Europe,” said May.

In total, May had to raise her $7,500 tuition for the trip which she was able to do with the help of several sponsors and fund raisers.

After months of hard work, May felt a rush of emotions when she finally departed for Rome.

“I had so many mixed feelings on the departure date,” said May. “I had feelings of nervousness, sadness and excitement.”

Once in Rome, May and her group visited the Coliseum which she described as “amazing.”

After that, May visited the Roman Ruins where Julius Caesar’s Tomb is located.

On a separate day, May traveled to the Vatican City where she visited the Direzione Dei Musei (a museum in Vatican City), the Sistine Chapel and the Cathedral of Pisa.

Her second country to visit was Austria where she spent six days.

On her first day in Austria, May met a Holocaust survivor who shared his story with the student ambassadors.

“At one point while the man was talking, he starting choking up,” said May. “I felt almost guilty for his pain, because I was there making him remember those memories that hurt him so much.

He told us that people had asked him before, “How come you didn’t escape and get out of there?” All he could say was there was no way. He said if someone were to just step out of line, they would get shot.”

The next day, May visited the Mauthausen Concentration Camp which was developed into one of the largest concentration camps in Europe. Of the 200,000 prisoners that were held at Mauthausen, only half survived.

“People died from poor hygiene, exhaustion and from being gassed in the gas chambers,” said May.

While there, May met one of the survivors from Mauthausen who was visiting his former place of torture.

“He said he always goes back to visit, because he doesn’t want to forget,” said May. “I have no idea why he wouldn’t want to forget a place like that. All I know is that man is spiritually strong, because he was able to go back and face it again.”

Once the group left the concentration camp, May went to go stay three days with a host family.

During those three days, May formed a close relationship with her host mom, Suzanne, and sister, Julia.

Together, May and Julia enjoyed watching a soccer game and attending a concert.

Following her stay there, May was reunited with her Student Ambassador group and left for Switerzland.

Her first mission was to buy some Switerzland chocolate. While they only stayed one day in the country, May said the group enjoyed seeing the Dormant Lion — known as the Sleeping Lion — which represents the Swiss guards and England.

Her favorite part of her trip, however, was her final destination: France.

In France, May and her peers visited the Hard Rock Cafe where they enjoyed “normal, American food” and the Eiffel Tower which she described as “awesome.”

“Never in my life have I walked up 668 stairs at one time in my life,” said May. “I would have walked all the way to the top, but the very top was temporarily out of service.”

While May said she enjoyed spending three weeks away from home, traveling to new countries, something strange started to happen by the end of her trip — she was homesick.

“What’s weird is I could not stop thinking about if my mom and my boyfriend looked different,” said May. “Even though it was only three weeks, I felt like I had been gone for about a year.”

Once she arrived back home in Texas, May described seeing her mother and boyfriend as the happiest moment in her life.

Although she is glad to be back home, May said she feels fortunate for the opportunity to travel abroad with People to People.

“I had so much fun and made friends that I will never forget,” said May. “I learned a lot more about the Christian religion. I experienced life in a whole different country and I experienced things other people dream about.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise May learned from the trip is that learning can be fun.

“After going overseas and after seeing all the other groups, I can honestly say I understand the concept of this program,” she added. “The People to People Student Ambassadors Program is about peace through understanding.

We have to communicate in order to understand, so we have to communicate in order to have peace. What better way to start than with our youth?”

As part of the program, May will travel overseas the next two summers. For those wishing to help her raise funds for tuition, donations can be made to Landmark Bank.

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