The benefits that high school students get from going overseas on a summer program are endless. It exposes them to people, languages and cultures that are very different from their own, which is increasingly important in a global world. It makes them more self-reliant, and increases confidence and maturity.
But the privilege to travel also comes with responsibilities. Experts in the travel field offer the following advice for keeping high school students confident, happy and safe overseas:
Pick the right program.
Summer high school trips can be expensive but are often the trip of a lifetime. With that in mind, you want to make sure the trip matches a student’s passion. There are many different summer programs, and each one focuses on different things like volunteering, sightseeing, adventure and language immersion.
There are also hybrid programs that combine language immersion with volunteer service like the one SPI Study Abroad offers in Costa Rica.
“To me, the most important part of the conversation is making sure the parent and the child are on the same page about what makes this opportunity worthwhile,” says John Foster, program operation director at SPI Study Abroad. Parents and students need to agree about the the goals, the expected benefits and the limits for the trip, he says.
Following the rules is mandatory.
All reputable high school summer programs have a code of conduct that both parents and students must read and sign. This is a great way to encourage a conversation about what behavior is appropriate and what is absolutely not allowed, says Christine Schulze, executive director at Concordia Language Villages.
“The code of conduct spells out some very basic behavior expectations from how to act appropriately on a plane, on a bus, in a family stay, but more specifically it outlines what the expectations are for things like tobacco use, alcohol, illicit drugs,” she says.
Teens need to know the consequences of breaking the rules. Most programs will send the student home for violations of the code and parents need to be clear who will pay.
“That’s a really expensive flight, and [students] need to be responsible for that,” Eifler says.
Always be aware of your surroundings and act in a confident manner.
Concordia Language Villages offers five tips to help students be confident:
Always travel in groups of two or three.
Map out your route in advance to minimize the chances of getting lost.
Write down your host family, hotel or hostel’s address and have it on your person at all times. If you are staying in a country like China or Russia that uses a different writing system, write it in that country’s characters.
Become familiar with the currency in the country you are visiting and understand the exchange rate. Practice at home so you can do the math mentally without having to pull out a smartphone.
Understand local cultural practices and standards, about, for example, taking photographs or approaching members of the opposite sex. For teens, a trip to another country is sometimes seen as an opportunity to explore new things in a place away from their usual peers, Eifler says. But if that involves sex, alcohol, drugs or other possibly risky behaviors, it’s not always safe in a foreign culture.
Research the county and be familiar with current issues there as well as current events in the States. But Foster recommends not talking about politics at all unless you are staying with a family you know really well.
Be prepared for culture shock.
Even adults traveling abroad experience culture shock, so it’s important to let a high school student know that it is a very common feeling. Schulze describes it as “homesickness in another country.”
She recommends talking about what to do when feelings get overwhelming. It’s OK to “step out” of the guest culture and seek out a hamburger and a Coke or just relax and read a book. A break will give students the energy to join back in, she says.
Err on the side of conservative with behavior and dress.
Teenagers should be aware of the dress codes in the country they are visiting and lean conservative, Foster says. And when traveling in groups, don’t talk loudly or over each other because it attracts a lot of attention.
“We tell students you are representing your families, you are representing yourself and you’re also representing our country to Europeans, to the Chinese, to Central Americans,” he says. “Understand that just like you’re forming opinions of a person, of a culture, of a country, people are forming opinions of you as well, so project yourself in the best light.”
If your teen is thinking about going overseas, here are eight programs popular with TeenLife members:
Campus Oxford is an academically focused program for high school students and offers classes in Oxford, Cambridge and London, England. Teaching is based in small groups or one-on-one tutorials.
Global Routes offers high school summer trips in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. Students volunteer in communities and learn about local culture through homestays.
Amigos is a nonprofit that sponsors cultural exchange programs in countries throughout Latin America. High school students live with host families and collaborate with local leaders to design and lead community development projects.