Tufts Travel-Learn is going places

Director Mary Ann Hunt on the value of travel and what's coming up
Mary Ann Hunt

"Travel is a great way to reflect, and learn about yourself, as much as it is a chance to reflect on the rest of the world," says Tufts Travel-Learn director Mary Ann Hunt. 

Mary Ann Hunt joined the Alumni Relations team as associate director of the Tufts Travel-Learn program in September 2017. She came to Tufts from Dartmouth College, where she first worked at the Hood Museum of Art coordinating exhibitions and public events. She went on to work in the college’s alumni travel program for ten years

At Tufts, Hunt is the program’s second director, succeeding Usha Sellers, who built the program from the ground up and who will continue to strengthen the program’s base of faculty hosts. Hunt takes on a program that has grown by leaps and bounds to 25 annual trips, with destinations as varied as Antarctica, Cuba, New Zealand and Vietnam. She looks forward to developing marketing strategies, brainstorming with travel partners at other Boston-area schools to get more of the Tufts family involved and on board.

Her abiding love of art, architecture, antiquities (she was dual major in art history and classical civilizations at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) dovetails with her appreciation for trips enriched by authentic experiences of diverse cultures and traditions – experiences that not only create indelible memories but also can change perspectives about our place in the world.   

1. People have lots of options for travel today, including finding online deals and shaping their own trip. What’s your pitch for going on a group experience and for planning adventures with Tufts Travel-Learn?
It’s true it is getting easier to plan your own travel because of the internet, and that can be a challenge for us. But I think we make a mark with the well-executed, time-saving benefits of group travel. The tour operator takes care of countless details that can eat up your day, like figuring out transportation and changing currency. Safety concerns are also built in. Our group tours also provide some authentic, local experiences—experiences that you can’t find on Trip Advisor. And perhaps most importantly, you meet great people and it’s so easy to stay in touch. I’m on one email thread of a group that’s planning on returning to Sicily in 2019! 

As for why Tufts? While the individual site guides and tour directors can provide a lot of historical background, our Tufts faculty hosts also have a range of expertise. They are great travel companions – they are open-minded and provide a glimpse of Tufts academics today. They have an ability to zoom out and connect the dots and make connections and to engage travelers in conversations. Also important are our tour directors, who are usually local people. We get great reviews on the Tufts’ Iceland trip because we have a great tour director; he grew up in Iceland and he regales the travelers with stories of his childhood on a small farm! That helps our travelers develop a relationship with him over the course of several days, and be comfortable asking ask deeper questions about life in Iceland, things like taxes, health care, employment. 

And then there is what really gets me excited about this job, Tufts itself. You will travel with people who have a shared affinity for Tufts and therefore shared an appreciation for intellectual interactions.  That is a good starting point. But for me, what makes Tufts’ program so full of potential is that Tufts graduates also seem to already have a shared valued system; they are global citizens. By that I mean they think about their place in the world, and they think about the world as a whole, as opposed to ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There is a natural curiosity about others. And that is what, I hope, prompts people to want to travel – to think about how you move in the world. Tufts graduates are already predisposed to that deeper engagement.

2. What’s the best compliment you heard about a trip – and why?  
The one quote from a Dartmouth trip encapsulates why I love this work. It was after a Morocco trip, on which our faculty host was a religion professor. My phone rang. We had just sent out the post-trip survey and it was one of the passengers. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll fill out your survey, but I had to call you. Because of the religion professor’s gentle introduction to Islam, and because we broke the daily Ramadan fast with our tour director in the Sahara, and we got to know him, I will never look at the news from an Islamic country the same again.’

And I thought, ‘Good!’ I think it was the personal connection and the breaking away from the stereotype that made him pick up the phone. You are used to thinking you know or understand something, and then you travel and it challenges your preconceptions.  On another trip to the Caribbean our faculty host was a legal scholar. A passenger called to complement me on this professor and said, ‘You know, I may not agree with everything he said, but I have a much better understanding of why he feels the way he does, and I can respect that.’  I thought, ‘that’s a step.’

Those are compliments to me because as I see it, travel is a great way to reflect, and learn about yourself, as much as it is a chance to reflect on the rest of the world. I just heard a great quote on a podcast: “Travel is like looking at yourself at a distance.” It helps to get that birds-eye view.  It gets you thinking critically.

3. What’s the future of travel industry look like to you? 
A few years back people were cautious because of uncertainty around safety, but people have perhaps accepted that as a “new normal’ and if they want to travel they will. They just need to be aware, as you always should be. And frankly, if something happens five days before your trip, you can cancel. You don’t go. I have seen an increase in the number of people purchasing trip insurance so they have that option, and I always encourage it. So, I am optimistic about the future of the industry. Once you start traveling, you just want to keep traveling. You find people, for the most part, who are nice and good everywhere you go.

4. What’s ahead for Tufts Travel Learn? 
Right now about 350 people are participating in Tufts Travel-Learn, and there is room for growth. I have my eye on making sure that we offer a wide variety of trips both in style and price point to get more people involved. I just confirmed a four-day trip to Copenhagen, for example. It will be a lower price point and it’s good for people still in the workforce who just want to get away. I’m also looking at strategic partnerships with other institutions. One I’m excited about is a ‘bike-and-barge’ in Holland and Belgium that we’re sharing with MIT and Smith in 2019.  I’m trying to find things that are different or more active, so the bike-and-barge is a great little tester. I was also interested to see one of our travel partners offer a trip to Portugal. It’s a completely underappreciated country. It’s affordable, and it is a gem.   

5. What’s your best personal travel experience?
I’ll start with the one that made me feel that I’d fulfilled a lifelong dream. That was Troy, in Turkey. Troy is an open archeological site – it’s not restored, like Ephesus. I was standing there on the hill and looking down over the field and thinking, ‘wow, this is where the Trojans stood and that is where the Greeks camped,’ and at that moment a Turkish shepherd brought his sheep across the field! It was so fantastic!

I also loved Egypt. I remember I was talking to someone in front of me on the bus when I caught a glimpse of the pyramids out of the left corner of my eye. And I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ Those are the pyramids. I couldn't believe I was actually going to see them. There is nothing like directly engaging with antiquity. I make the comparison to my experience as an art history student: I could look at a Monet or Seurat on the slide projector screen, but that was nothing like being in the presence of the real painting. I think the same thrill happens when you go to a great city, and you stand in front of Notre Dame or the Pyramids. There is something in the directness of that experience that is unforgettable.

Be sure to visit the Tufts Travel-Learn website for more on upcoming trips!