Pre-College Study Abroad Programs (Questions & Answers)

I was asked to provide some thoughts for a magazine piece on pre-college study abroad programs. I’ll link to the article if it gets picked up, but in the interim, here are the responses I provided to the reporter:

Pre-College Study Abroad Programs (Questions & Answers)

What are the benefits to a student who studies abroad? One outcome that is typically consistent across all students is increased confidence and leadership capabilities stemming from successfully navigating a new and often challenging experience. Plus, travel enriches our lives. Numerous studies have shown that the emotional benefit from experiences far exceeds material purchases, which provide only fleeting personal satisfaction, whereas travel is laden with new, interesting, and often unique experiences that provide emotional rewards for a lifetime.

How does travel prepare a person for college and the future job market? Broadly speaking, students studying abroad should grasp the importance of global perspective, economically and culturally. They can bring that mindset into future business and personal interactions, which will invariably prove useful as globalization continues to bring different groups of people together. Of course, specific study abroad experience may yield additional benefits, such as foreign language proficiency or development of certain skills garnered while abroad.

How do programs for pre-college kids differ from those offered to college-level students? Much more structure and supervision. On a semester-long college study abroad program, students typically have an orientation and will have access to resources when needed, but they are largely left to explore their host country independently or with their peers. On pre-college programs, students are typically part of groups with a low student to staff ratio (sometimes as low as 3 or 4:1) and the programs are highly supervised. Students are almost never allowed to be alone outside of their accommodations, nightly check-ins are conducted, rules concerning drugs and alcohol use are strictly enforced, and similar policies are in place to ensure the safety of students. This isn’t to say that study abroad programs for college students are totally lax (although some definitely are), but the expectation for college students is that by the time they’ve decided to study abroad, they’ve had at least a year, and often more, living independently in a university setting and are therefore going to be more adept at making the “right” choices.

What – if any – special concerns are there for racial minorities traveling to other countries? There may be certain cultures that are less accustomed to visitors from certain races or that may hold people of some racial heritages in an inferior view due to some unfortunate history, although in general this is rare. It’s more important to focus on the cultural and geographic make-up of the students in your study abroad group since these are the people that you will be spending the most time with while traveling. International travel is all about experiencing new people and places, so look for organizations that emphasize inclusivity and diversity in their student body.

What are the costs associated with study abroad programs, and how early should parents start planning? Travel is expensive. There’s no getting around that fact, but in most cases it’s money well spent. Costs for pre-college study abroad programs typically start at around $750/week and can be as high as $3000/week, not including airfare, but typically otherwise all-inclusive. Of course, the destination will have the biggest impact on total price. However, even within the same destination country, higher prices can sometimes (although definitely not always) mean better accommodations and more ticketed activities, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a better overall travel experience. Be wary of organizations at the high end of the scale. Often they cater to a high-end clientele that associates high price with top quality, but with pre-college study abroad programs, the chances are pretty good that there will be little, if any, difference in the actual experience from a program offering a similar service or itinerary at a more mid-tier price point. Parents looking for summer pre-college study abroad programs should begin their research in late fall or early winter and be prepared to make decisions by April or May at the latest.

Do you have any other bits of advice for parents and/or students? Prioritize what’s most important for you in a study abroad experience. Language immersion, a “homestay” experience, wilderness expedition, experiencing life in a developing country, visiting places of historical significance – depending on where you go, all or some of these types of experiences could be possible in a single place, but in general, it’s best not to go in with a “checkbox” mentality. It’s highly advisable to avoid study abroad programs billed as “tours.” Traveling from one landmark icon to the next so you can take a picture is not the same as studying abroad. Look for study abroad programs that spend meaningful time in only a couple of fascinating locations within the destination country and that facilitate genuine opportunities to interact with the local people. One good way to gauge this while you’re doing research is to ask the provider two questions: What makes your program unique? How much of your programming is contracted out to in-country tour operators? Especially for college study abroad programs (but also with some pre-college programs), you could be surprised to find out that your “study abroad” company is really just a US-based marketing affiliate that is sourcing students for a local tour operator, which funnels thousands of students through the same cookie-cutter travel experiences. So, do your homework. Smaller companies that specialize in a specific country, region or programming niche, and non-profit study abroad organizations, are more likely to have the interests of the student first in mind.

About Sustainable Summer

Choosing pre-college study abroad programs is an important decision. If you’re looking for a program that is an alternative to the numerous “service learning” or “adventure travel” programs, we hope you’ll consider Sustainable Summer. Any high school student interested in environmental issues, ecology, food and agriculture, renewable energy, natural resource management, biodiversity and wildlife conservation, development economics, social justice, and global issues will probably find Sustainable Summer to be a strong fit. Give us a call or contact us to discuss your goals and interests.

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