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We are thrilled to present the newest addition to our CAS Trip Leader spotlight series! These remarkable individuals showcase mastery in their respective fields and possess a unique talent for sharing knowledge and sparking inspiration among our young travelers. They embody the mission of CAS Trips, breathing life into our educational adventures, and we consider ourselves very fortunate to have each of them on our team.

Today, the spotlight is on one of our Barcelona Trip Leaders— Mara. With a diverse background in languages, communication, and teaching, Mara brings a wealth of knowledge and a passion for cultural diversity and history to the world of experiential learning. Through humor, honesty, and an undeniable enthusiasm, she imparts a deeper understanding of the complex history of Barcelona, showcasing both its charm and what will be needed to ensure the city has a thriving future. 

So, Mara, tell us about your journey to becoming a Trip Leader in Barcelona.

My path has been quite eclectic. I grew up in Romania, a country I love and was planning to return to when I left to pursue an English teaching certification in Barcelona. I was in my early twenties, with double bachelor’s degrees in International Business and Communications; I found myself drawn to teaching and liked the idea of spending a stint in the Catalan capital. I guess it goes without saying that the city enchanted me, as I’m still here 12 years later 🙂 

Teaching has always been one of my callings, and I find immense joy in explaining things to people in a fun and engaging way. Alongside teaching, my interests range from stand-up comedy to watercolor painting and, of course, the captivating history of Barcelona.

My introduction to CAS Trips came through a friend, and it felt like a natural fit given my experience working with young people, whether at summer camps or in the classroom. While leading trips in Barcelona is still relatively new to me, I’ve always loved showing people around, sharing insider tips, and immersing them in the city’s vibrant culture.

My background as a teacher and a stand-up comedian has provided me with a solid foundation for leading student groups.

You’ve had quite the journey leading up to this role! How has your background prepared you for leading student groups around Barcelona?

My background as a teacher and a stand-up comedian has provided me with a solid foundation for leading student groups. Being multilingual (I speak seven languages) allows me to connect with students from diverse backgrounds more deeply. Each group I’ve worked with has been unique, presenting its own set of challenges and opportunities for connection.

Wow, seven languages — very impressive! Your rich cultural understanding undoubtedly brings a lot to your role as a Trip Leader.

Yes, it’s been fascinating leading such diverse groups. Take, for instance, a recent group from Kingston, Jamaica. We had four teachers and 28 students, which was quite a handful, but it was an enriching experience. I remember thinking I was a shepherd, guiding these individuals through the streets of Barcelona and implementing the activities our fantastic CAS Trips team has crafted.

Even though I have never been to Jamaica, I surprised myself (and I think the students) by finding common ground through our shared love for music and rhythm — I think they were shocked I knew so many Sean Paul lyrics 🙂 In any case, it was lovely to see how we connected over music despite our cultural differences.

Barcelona Trip Leader

That’s wonderful! Surely, they were grateful to hear some familiar beats. Those kids were a long way from home. What were some memorable moments from the time you spent together?

Visiting the Camp Nou stadium was definitely a highlight for them! Witnessing their excitement as we explored the Barça stadium together was special. I’ll never forget how excited they were when they realized we could go all the way down to the level of the field—some even kneeled and kissed the pitch in reverence. Many of them are avid football players back home, so it was an exhilarating experience. 

Overall, they were an incredibly warm and friendly group. The teachers were particularly eager to practice their Spanish with native speakers, adding camaraderie to our interactions.

Another memorable experience was when they had to interview locals for the Sustainable Design Challenge. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous on their behalf, but they surprised me with their fearlessness. They dove right in, approaching locals, young and old, with confidence and curiosity. Seeing how flattered the locals were to be asked questions and engage in meaningful conversations was heartening.

In hindsight, it’s always been my experience that teenagers from around the world tend to have more in common than not. It was a reminder of the universal language of youth—shared passions and interests that transcend cultural boundaries.

Barcelona is such a dynamic city, but not everyone realizes the intentional efforts made to transform it into a tourist destination.

That’s very heartwarming. I am sure they also learned a lot about the city engaging with locals! What other unique aspects of Barcelona do you like to dig into on the trips you lead?

There are so many lenses through which to explore and understand the place. Barcelona is such a dynamic city, but not everyone realizes the intentional efforts made to transform it into a tourist destination. Exploring how architecture and marketing shaped the city’s identity offers valuable insights into the intersection of culture and commerce.

At the turn of the 20th century, Barcelona actively sought to attract tourists, even establishing an Agency for the Attraction of Tourists. This trend wasn’t unique to Barcelona; throughout Europe, there was a concerted effort to create an atmosphere of antiquity to appeal to tourists. The Gothic Quarter, with its winding streets and historic facades, is actually a product of this marketing strategy. A plan was launched in 1889 to make it look like what gothic “should” look like, but it is really neo-gothic. It’s fascinating to see how students respond when they learn that these deliberate efforts have shaped the city’s architectural landscape.

One example that always surprises students is the story of Bishop’s Bridge, a picturesque spot often mistaken for a centuries-old structure. In reality, it was constructed in 1928—a testament to Barcelona’s knack for blending history with modernity (in sometimes deceptive ways).

That’s an important technique to get students to think twice about what they are looking at and ask questions beyond the surface level. Are they surprised to learn these facts?

Yes. Many have never considered these aspects of the city’s history before. Another topic that often surprises them is Barcelona’s intriguing relationship with pigeons. I draw a parallel between the pigeons in Plaça Catalunya and the city organizers’ desire to emulate Venice during this tourism push. They hired someone to lure pigeons to the square intentionally because they wanted it to resemble San Marco. It’s hard to imagine investing effort and resources in luring pigeons today. In any case, it’s a worthwhile learning point—sometimes what you wish for comes true; it’s a double-edged sword, a gift and a curse.

Students are generally unaware of the tensions between tourists and residents and the broader implications of over-tourism. Through activities like the Sustainable Design Challenge, they have the opportunity to engage with locals and gain first-hand insights into these complex issues.

Indeed. Barcelona residents (in addition to likely being grateful pigeons are no longer being actively recruited) have also pushed back against tourists in recent years. Is this something you discuss on your trips?

It is. The issue of over-tourism and its impact on local communities is a topic that often arises during our trips. Students are generally unaware of the tensions between tourists and residents and the broader implications of over-tourism. Through activities like the Sustainable Design Challenge, they have the opportunity to engage with locals and gain first-hand insights into these complex issues. It’s eye-opening for them to see how tourism can affect a city’s social fabric and spark discussions about gentrification and urban development.

Visits to our Service partners in a green tech farm outside the city, provide students hands-on experiences in sustainable agriculture and technology.

It is a vital issue for visitors to be aware of. What are some other aspects of the city you make sure to highlight during your trip and featured activities?

I show them parts of the city that most visitors don’t see, offering insights into the structure and architecture they might not otherwise appreciate. It’s all about providing a deeper understanding of Barcelona’s identity beyond its tourist attractions, encouraging students to think critically about the city and its place in the world. 

When it comes to activities, the cooking challenge is always a hit with students. They get to create regional dishes like Crema Catalana, Romesco, Paella de Verduras, and Tortilla de Patatas. It allows them to showcase their culinary skills and fosters teamwork and mindfulness about food waste. 

Additionally, our visits to places like Allela Green Tech, a green tech farm outside the city, provide students hands-on experiences in sustainable agriculture and technology. While engaging in a range of activities integral to the functioning of the farm, students have a chance to learn about nature, sustainable agriculture, and how technology can help us conserve resources and combat climate change.

Showcasing a destination’s sustainability initiatives is a big focus of ours at CAS Trips.

Yes, that’s important, and I hope tourism continues to move in that direction. As we look to the future of educational travel, I hope to see a greater emphasis on sustainability and conscious consumption, paving the way for a more environmentally responsible approach to exploring the world. We need to continue working to remove the stigma around used goods and highlight the value of how a circular economy can help keep places like Barcelona beautiful, thriving destinations to both live and visit for years to come. 

A huge thanks to Mara for taking the time to share her insight! Her dedication and passion help bring our Barcelona itinerary to life! Stay tuned in the coming weeks and months as we share more stories from our trip leaders worldwide.