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WWII history immersion trip a summer highlight for area high-school students

This year's Normandy Academy class at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Back Row, from left: Barbara Rodriguez, Angel Hernandez, Dalila Sandoval, Andrew Bartnik, Carly Gatlin, Nathan Drew, Connor Hoffman, JT Haberern, Karlo Carballo Cornejo, David Finley, Eva Rausch, Haven Keery and Kendra Costello; front row, from left: statue of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and students Kyra Reeds, Storey Tramm, Jaron Pidcock, Jerad Deras, Zoe Laird and Brianna Carino.
Aspen Community Foundation/Courtesy photo

A group of 19 local, high-school students have been busy sharing a little bit more than the usual “What did you do this summer?” stories to start the new school year.

Representing five high schools from New Castle to Basalt, the students took part in a 12-day trip in July that included a visit to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans before traveling to see first-hand the beaches of Normandy, France, where the D-Day invasion took place on June 6, 1944.

Since 2016, Roaring Fork Valley philanthropist Paul Bushong has been working with the Aspen Community Foundation to give area students the opportunity to participate in the museum-sponsored Normandy Academy.



During the trip, students immerse themselves in the people, weaponry, strategy and aftermath of the largest amphibious invasion in history, when the Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy after the German troops invaded France.

“Normandy may be the most significant historical event in the last 100 years,” said Bushong, who was happy to see the return of the program this summer following a two-year hiatus in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic and related travel restrictions.



“If it weren’t for Normandy, we might have lost the war, and we might all be speaking German,” he said.

The trip is open to high-school sophomores and juniors. Participants are selected through an application process, and their families are asked to cover a quarter of the cost for the trip while Bushong covers the rest.

Upon their return, students are tasked to share their experience with peers as a way to bring awareness about the significance of the events. 

Some of the six students representing Glenwood Springs High School on the trip were asked to share their thoughts with the Post Independent.

“It is an event that shaped the world we know today,” Andrew Bartnik said. “A lot can be learned from that dark period in time, and, hopefully, it is remembered and taught for years to come.”

The first-hand perspective gained through the trip is far more impacting than reading it in a history book or seeing a film, he said.

“Now, whenever I hear about the D-Day landings or battle of Normandy, I picture the beaches I walked on, and the bunkers I entered,” Bartnik said. “What surprised me most was how the presence of the war remains so many years later. Ruined bunkers and cannons are powerful sights, of course, but even the overlooked details held a lot of meaning.”

He describes seeing the bomb crater scars left behind in the fields and divots where trenches once ran.

“You can’t help but think about how the calm modern-day pasture was once a terrifying battlefield,” he said. “My goal is to spread word to the GSHS sophomore and junior classes, encouraging them to apply for this unforgettable experience in the coming year.”

GSHS participant Jared Deras said it was a great opportunity to expand on what he already knew about WWII.

“It was amazing to go to museums and look at artifacts, such as weapons, uniforms, vehicles and little things, like silverware,” he said. “We had the very rare opportunity to listen to a survivor of the German occupation of France and hear her story and experiences of living in such a time.”

Added GSHS student Angel Hernandez: “Over the course of the two-week trip, I not only witnessed the mass scale that the Normandy invasion was fought on, but I got to witness the preservation of historic artifacts and locations from the war.

“In addition, I got to spend two weeks with some of the most energetic people from the Roaring Fork Valley.”

Zoe Laird said she learned a lot about herself as a traveler and student while navigating a foreign country without her family.

“Learning about the different French customs was really surprising; who knew it was rude to smile at people on the street?,” she said. “I think everyone on that trip was surprised by how little we really knew.”

As for the war history she was exposed to: “Even after an intensive week in France going to several museums, I feel like I have so much to learn. This trip further sparked my interest in the less-talked-about parts of this war and others.”

Bushong shared an email message sent to him after the trip by Basalt High School student participant Connor Hoffman.

In it, he writes: “What really struck me was that even though the war caused most individuals in France to lose their past way of life, and, even though it took a long time to rebuild, they were able to move on and build new lives. That is really the whole reason why the war was fought; so that people could keep living their lives the way they wanted to live it.

“That is something no textbook or teacher has ever expressed to me, and something I know will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he wrote.

Bushong said he hopes to expand the program next year to as many as 30 students.

Roaring Fork Valley Normandy Academy Class of 2022

Glenwood Springs High School: Andrew Bartnik, Briana Carino, Jared Deras, Angel Hernandez, Zoe Laird and Eva Rausch

Yampah Mountain High School: Karlo Carballo Cornejo

Coal Ridge High School: Jaron Pidcock and Dalila Sandoval

Roaring Fork High School: Jonathan Haberern, Kendra Costello, Nathan Drew, David Finley, Haven Keery and Kyra Reeds

Basalt High School: Carly Gatlin, Connor Hoffman, Barbara Rodriguez and Storey Tramm


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