Skip to Main Content

A Passion for People, Places and History with Instructor Ruth Polling

At 18 years old, Road Scholar instructor Ruth Polling began her career in politics. “I wanted to support my community and be a voice for change, and at that age I saw a missing demographic,” Ruth says. While working in politics, Ruth attended university and graduated from the London School of Economics with a degree in international history with an emphasis on 20th-century conflict. After working in politics for eleven years, including in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, she was ready for a change. 

Ruth outside the St Paul's Cathedral

“A professional politician was all I’d ever been and I thought, ‘what else can I give?’” Ruth recalls. To discover her next step, she decided to travel to get space and perspective — little did she realize that the year spent exploring Europe would give her the inspiration she was looking for. “While abroad, I met the most amazing travel educators,” Ruth says, “and I realized that it might be the perfect occupation for me — it used the same skills as politics — communications, public speaking and empathy.”

London born and bred, Ruth returned from her travels refreshed. “I realized that I live in the most amazing city in the world, and I wanted to share it with others.” Almost ten years ago, Ruth graduated at the top of her class as the London Blue Badge Travel Educator of the Year. 

Her Road Scholar career began shortly thereafter, in 2014, and completely by accident. “It was one of those lucky chances,” she recalls. She had met a Road Scholar group leader during her training and, when he was unable to lead the group for its program, he recommended Ruth. “I remember getting up that morning, quite literally, mere hours after the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI. I got to spend the day taking this very interested, very involved Road Scholar group to memorial sites in London, and it was just a lovely, lovely day,” she says. “Their excitement about what they were learning, and that they already had a background in this particular history, really let me focus on the remembrance aspects.”

Ruth at the Imperial War Museum

She recalls that the Road Scholar program instructor, a military historian, asked her if she could focus on the involvement of women in the First World War, since she had the background and expertise. “I used the bus journey to cover that,” she says, her passion and enthusiasm for the subject, her city, her country and sharing their stories clear, even in her recollection. Between that passion and her post-graduate focus on London’s history, she was a perfect ambassador for her city and for Road Scholar. 

As her 10-year tenure with Road Scholar approaches, she has maintained that enthusiasm. “I feel so lucky that I found a career I never knew existed, that I found Road Scholar by happy accident, and I have this opportunity to work in a completely different style of education. Road Scholars are wonderful,” she adds. “Their questions are in-depth and engaged, and they’re truly world travelers. They make comparisons with where they’ve been and what they’ve learned, so I can really focus on the subject at hand.” 

That subject is primarily the history of 20th-century conflict, but Ruth has also focused on religious history and politics, and can speak to all aspects of London’s history. In fact, she has taken what she’s learned over the years and teaches others to be travel educators. “I learn so much from Road Scholars,” she adds. “Every time they sign up for a particular program, it’s so clear that they’re curious — they’ve done the work, read the reading lists and come with specific, intelligent questions. They challenge me to think of things in different ways. It’s reciprocal learning.” 

Road Scholar group at the Imperial War Museum

Ruth loves that there is an ongoing evolution in her work. “This job has constant opportunity for growth, and I keep learning. I feel incredibly privileged that I have these opportunities to explore and share what I’ve learned and to learn more. I love communicating a sense of place, to have people make connections to what’s happened in the past and what’s still here that we can see,” she says. “We think that people in history were so unlike us, and I love watching people make those connections. Time may have passed, but we’re still so similar.”

Interested in sampling one of Ruth’s learning adventures? In 2024, you can find her in our Adventures Online, London, the Story of a City and A Look at WWII in London & Normandy. In person, look for her on Churchill’s Finest Hour: A Transatlantic Voyage on QM2

If you’d like to participate in the conversation, join the Women of Road Scholar on Facebook.

Road Scholar group at the base of the Churchill statue