What are the best summer abroad programs for high school students (Reviews/Ratings)?

How to Choose a Summer Abroad Program

There are a lot of summer abroad programs for high school students. Teens have never had as many options for a summer abroad experience. So, how do you choose from all of the different summer abroad programs out there?

We’ve worked in this field for a long time and know that the amount of choices can be daunting. If you’re a teen or the parent of a teen looking for a summer abroad program, you’re probably considering a number of factors such as:

  • destination
  • group size and composition
  • the amount and quality of community service
  • price
  • and, of course, safety and the reputation of the organization.

However, there are several other important, often overlooked considerations. This post identifies five popular summer abroad programs and also includes several tips for choosing a program. Note, we’re only discussing summer programs offering travel experiences to South America, Africa, Asia, and other developing regions of the world in this post.

High school summer abroad in Ecuador image
Bargaining for jewelry in Ecuador, a typical summer abroad ritual

Overview and Background

There are many great summer abroad programs that emphasize experiential learning as the foundational element of the travel experience. Sustainable Summer specializes in teaching high school students about environmental sustainability in this way, and we think that students intent on enhancing their understanding of this important subject will be hard-pressed to find a better option. However, there are plenty of high school students who may be looking at other summer abroad programs with a different focus, often either service learning, language immersion, or both.

We want to share our knowledge about some of the options you might consider (in no particular order). These aren’t necessarily reviews of summer abroad programs for high school students – a search on collegeconfidential.com will typically yield a thread or two about students’ experiences on these programs (take those with a grain of salt). However, I can attest to the reputation of these organizations as experienced operators in the high school summer abroad market.

Popular Summer Abroad Programs for High School Students

Rustic Pathways: Certainly one of the largest companies in the field. Rustic operates all over the world, including several service trips in the US, and offer more trips than just about anyone else. They are known for covering a lot of ground on their programs, offering a lot of shorter-duration programs that can be “interconnected” together, and for requiring that participants have their airfare coordinated by Rustic Pathways (at a pretty significant premium, it should be noted – it’s definitely recommended that you use their “Travel Desk” feature to calculate the estimated flight cost before signing on with them). It’s worth noting that they also own and operate facilities in some of their destinations, which is somewhat unique. Oh, and they probably have the heaviest promotional materials. I feel bad for the reps I see at events who have to haul around the massive catalogs showcasing all their different programs. (2014 Update: Rustic really trimmed down their catalog this year. It’s still something like 80 pages, but that’s probably half what it used to be. It’s a really nice print piece and I suggest you pick one up just for the photography.)

Where There Be Dragons:  This company emphasizes “rugged travel.” More than any other, they have a reputation for getting off the grid, not following a set itinerary, and traveling to destinations that sometimes lack the more developed tourism infrastructure that you find on many of the itineraries of summer abroad programs for high school students. Their groups even utilize local transport as part of the effort to acquire authentic experiences. I’m not intending to be at all derogatory. That’s just what you’re signing on for with “Dragons” and I think it’s a commendable approach that I personally seek out when traveling independently. I’ve had former Dragons participants on programs that I’ve run and they have had a lot of really positive things to say about their experiences. They have a great reputation among educators, too. Dragons is also a leader on the risk management front and attends NOLS annual risk management conference. I have a lot of respect for this company.

Experiment in International Living: The only one of the group that is a non-profit (so is Sustainable Summer). EIL is the high school summer abroad division of World Learning, which is quite a large non-profit that offers study abroad programs for college and graduate students, in addition to international exchange and development programs. EIL/World Learning (aka “the Experiment”) is also one of the most tenured organizations in the field and was founded in 1932. They are known for their homestay experience.

Putney Student Travel: Putney has also been around for quite some time – over 60 years. They are based out of a refurbished barn in Vermont, which is a pretty cool, and one of their owners, Peter Shumlin, is now Vermont’s Governor, which is very definitely cool. Putney has a multitude of offerings ranging from community service to pre-college to language learning in a many different destinations. They also have a new partnership with National Geographic to run “expedition” programs for high school students.

Visions Service Adventures: Visions proudly offers only community service programs. No home stays. No “teen tours.” Service learning is at the forefront of all of their programs, and they are certainly worth a close look if you are looking for a dedicated community service program.

Hiking on a summer abroad program image
Hiking on a summer abroad program

Tips on Choosing A Program

Choosing a summer abroad program for high school students is an important decision. There is no “best” summer abroad program out there and I’m not going to pretend that I can speak knowledgeably about the hundreds of options available. Here are three tips to help you with your choice:

Specialization: If you’re looking for something really specific, like a wilderness photojournalism program or a program that explores Eastern religious practices, you can probably find it from one of the providers listed above, but that doesn’t mean they are the only options to consider. With so many providers out there, my advice is to look into organizations that specialize in a certain type of experience and consider programs that emphasize a specific subject of inquiry or focus. Obviously, there is an art and expertise to running an effective summer abroad program, and organizations that put all their efforts into a specific type of program are going to deliver a tighter experience. But narrowly-focused programs are also going to attract like-minded students (note, “like-minded” does NOT equate to demographically or economically alike), which is a really critical component to the overall experience.

Marketing and Programmatic Integrity: I was attending an event at an elite private boarding school a few weeks ago and having a great conversation with a parent about our program. She had insightful questions and clearly was interested in the topic of sustainability. After about 10 minutes of conversation, she told me that she really liked what we do, but that she was especially interested in a different program that offered language immersion, community service, and leadership – all during a 2-week program! Unless this company has somehow figured out a way to actually slow the progress of time and magically transform 2 weeks in Costa Rica into  the equivalent of 8, there is simply no way that they can deliver on all three of these objectives in any meaningful way. Don’t be fooled by companies that pack a whole bunch of desirable features into a single “super” program and make bold claims about “making a difference.” If you’re looking into a language immersion program, 2 weeks is woefully insufficient. If you’re interested in community service, do you really think a couple of days painting a school is going to dramatically alter the trajectory of a community where decades of assistance has failed. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.

Staff & Program Composition: Lastly, keep an eye on the size of the group, the student:staff ratio, and the caliber of the trip leaders. For travel programs to developing countries, small groups are best. 18 should be the ceiling on group size, and at that size, 3 trip leaders is necessary. A 6:1 student:staff ratio is as broad as I would go for most “developing country” itineraries. Anything over 8:1 is getting reckless, in my opinion. And the quality of the trip leader team matters a lot. Look for age and experience in staff.

A Summer Program Alternative

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.

About Sustainable Summer

Sustainable Summer is an environmental study abroad and leadership program for high school students. The program is run by Sustainable Learning, a Brooklyn-based 501(c)(3) not-for-profit. For summer 2014, Sustainable Summer will run programs in Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Amazon, and the Galapagos.

Note, this article was initially written in March 2013, but was updated in February 2014 with photos and some new content. If you liked this article, you may enjoy these other posts on high school study abroad.