I recently sat down with Ben Welbourn, who manages community service trips and summer programs in the Dominican Republic for Rustic Pathways to get his opinion on, as well as his advice on, choosing the right gap year program for your student.
Questions to Ask When Choosing the Right Gap Year Program
Ben advises parents and teens to ask themselves these important questions when researching a gap year program:
1. Does it offer a strong connection with the community?
Choose a program with a strong local connection. Look for a program that has an intimate relationship with the community where they are traveling. I cannot give the teens on my trip the same experience as the local trip leaders who live in the Dominican Republic. It should be partially run by people in that country, so they can introduce them to their culture, family and friends, cook their local food, etc.
2. Is the program reputable and safe?
Parents and students should do ample research before selecting any program, but safety is of utmost importance. Respected programs have good reputations and records of safety. At Rustic Pathways, we partner with International SOS, which links us to one of the biggest travel advisory organizations in the world. International SOS provides medical assistance, international healthcare, and security services. I highly recommend this service to anyone traveling abroad on a Gap Year program, or traveling abroad in general. Our students also get assigned a personal travel advisor that can be called any time of day.
3. Does it offer a high level of immersion into the local culture?
Find out how involved the program is with the local community and infrastructure. Students should choose a program that will truly integrate them with the people around them. You want them to learn as much about the local culture and traditions as possible—right down to the food they eat and how they prepare it.
4. What recommendations does the program have?
Look for gap year programs that other students you know have been on. Talking to family, friends, the program's alumni, etc. provides the most honest recommendation you can find. And don't hesitate to call them up. I talked to anyone who would pick up the phone, even the CEOs of the organizations. It helped me to see the differences in programs, what they thought about other programs, why they worked there, what they were planning in the future, etc.
5. Does it have a strong alumni network?
Connections can help students down the line. Gap Year programs provide networks for college, internships, and jobs long after the trips are over. It's one thing to learn while you are there, but you can leverage it afterwards, too.