Throughout our 64-year history, Putney Student Travel has developed strong connections across generations of alumni families. Since the earliest programs journeyed across the Atlantic in the 1950s, we’ve been joined by friends, siblings, children, nieces and nephews, and even grandchildren of those travelers from the early years. As the Putney Student Travel family has grown up over the years, it has done so alongside our alumni families. We were recently reminded of this when we received a call from Stephanie Schaeffer, who traveled with us on our Switzerland, Italy, France, and Holland program in the 1980s with Jeff Shumlin as one of her leaders. Stephanie, whose last name back then was Cohn, was calling to inquire about the very same program for her teenage daughter, Caroline. Stephanie’s older daughter also participated in this program in 2014 and her siblings Jonathan, Kimberli, and Matt traveled with us on many different student travel programs in the 1980s as well. Stephanie’s husband Robert Schaeffer and her brother-in-law Tony are also alumni of Putney Student Travel, as are her nieces and nephews on both sides of her family. Her daughter Isabelle was the 10th member of the family to travel with Putney! Stephanie and Jeff, Co-Director of Putney Student Travel and son of the organization’s founders, relished this shared familial history over the phone. We later got in touch to interview Stephanie on the role Putney Student Travel has played in her family.
In what ways have the Putney Student Travel alumni in your family carried their experience with them into their adult lives?
As an adult with a family of my own, I love to travel and realize that the way we travel now is built on the foundation of both my husband’s and my own Putney experiences. We love to explore a country in an authentic way — nothing is better than wandering aimlessly in a new town and asking locals where they like to eat. We don’t like to be tourists who are rushing to make sure we see all the most popular sights, but rather we love to explore and get a feel not only for the town or city we are visiting but for the people who live there as well.
I remember back to my Putney program and the week-long bike trip in Holland, how each day a different person would have the map and have to figure out how to get to the next hostel and decide where we would be stopping for lunch. There was no right way to get to the next place and the group placed confidence in the day’s leader and each day was an adventure. We never worried about what we might be missing by taking a certain path — but rather we relished what we saw along our way. If something piqued the interest of the group or even one person — whether it was a wonderful cheese shop or windmill or quaint town along the way — we explored it, and often this unexpected experience was a highlight of the day’s journey.
This is how my husband and I like to travel today. We take our family to wonderful places, but we aren’t tourists staying in the fanciest hotels. We prefer to stay in places that are more authentic to the region and prefer to walk around and explore a city rather than sitting in a bus or car and looking at the famous sites out the window.
As an alumna and also a parent of Putney Student Travel participants, how would you say the experience has evolved over the years?
I think that the core of a Putney program hasn’t changed from 30 years ago when I was on my trip. The experiences continue to focus on adventuresome travel for curious students. The students who choose to go on a Putney trip today are truly grounded and interesting students who have a zest for adventure. They are open to exploring new experiences fully — whether it be sleeping on an overnight train on a triple bunk bed, living with a family who doesn’t speak English in a homestay, carrying their own bags from bus or train stations up cobblestone streets to a hostel, navigating the Paris metro, or appreciating art in a museum. The varied experience of Putney’s trips makes them exciting and interesting — that definitely hasn’t changed over time.
What sort of advice would you have for someone preparing for their first Putney program?
The best piece of advice I can give is: don’t go with friends or anyone you know! Putney trips are small groups with wonderful leaders who make sure that the group dynamics work well and that everyone is engaged and having fun. It’s a wonderful experience to make new friends from all over. You likely have gone to the same school or camp for a number of years and haven’t had the experience of making new friends as a teenager. It’s great practice for college when you will likely go with no one you know and will need to know how to make new friends.