When I was a senior in high school, I was given what was — at the time — a pretty rare opportunity to study abroad for a year on a Rotary scholarship. Back then, it was a somewhat radical idea, taking a “gap year” after high school to travel and study before heading to college. The experiences I had during that year in Russia fundamentally shaped the person I became; and to this day, I remember it as one of the most influential, educational years of my life. Twenty-five years later, such adventures have become much more common; there are travel summer camps for kids as young as middle school, and older students often spend a semester or even a year overseas as part of their education. For many teenagers, it’s the chance of a lifetime.
The good news is that these days, the high school study abroad programs available are seemingly endless; pick any country and you’re almost guaranteed a program for it. The bad news is that options are seemingly endless; as you pore through the catalogue of offerings, it can be painfully difficult to decide which to choose. Most programs fall into a few main categories: general academic, language study, adventure, volunteer/community service, exchanges, and special interest travel like photography and cooking. Many are a combination of these. The cost of these programs is as varied as the offerings, ranging anywhere from $2,000 for a week-long community service trip to well over $35,000 for some year-long programs — not including airfare. Generally speaking, high school summer programs run somewhere between $3,000 and $10,000 for a two to three-week trip, not including airfare. More good news: A majority of the well-established programs offer scholarships to qualifying students.
When choosing summer programs for teens, consider your student’s academic interests and hobbies, as well as an ideal group size, destination, and budget. More importantly, read reviews, research, and inquire about a company’s history and safety practices. Also refer to the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, an organization that accredits academic-oriented exchange programs. In addition to the programs recommended here, many high schools and universities offer their own programs.
The Council on International Educational Exchange
The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) has been around for 65 years and is known for its great variety of programs, including study abroad for high school and college students, gap year programs, summer work programs, travel exchanges, teaching and volunteer opportunities. In all, they run about 200 programs in nearly 50 countries. Summer abroad options focus on language and culture, service and leadership, and special interest travel. You can find everything from Spanish language classes in Chile to trips focusing on marine ecology in Bonaire. Some programs offer the opportunity to attend a local school or college and live with a host family. Destinations include many you’d expect like France, Ireland and Mexico, as well as other more far-flung countries like Jordan and Ghana. CIEE programs are open to students who are rising sophomores through college, depending on the program. Every year CIEE offers about $3 million in scholarships and grants.
Youth for Understanding
Founded in 1951 by an American minister, Youth for Understanding (YFU) offers a variety of different programs for students including year-long, semester, summer, and gap programs in more than 40 countries. Their youth programs are designed for high school students and vary in length from a few weeks to a year; most include a stay with a host family. YFU has special interest programs that focus on music, arts, sports and theater, and also offers hosting opportunities for families interested in housing a foreign student. Their programs include a great variety of destinations including Argentina, Turkey, Australia and Korea. Students can spend a summer studying mythology in Greece, attend a French immersion program in Canada, or take a cultural tour of South Korea. Gap year programs also offer students the option to live with a host family, attend a college and/or participate in volunteer programs for the year. For most year and semester programs, a 3.0 GPA is required. For summer programs, a 2.0 is required. Age requirements vary considerably by program; for most, students must be between 15 to 18 years old. Scholarships are available.
Putney Student Travel
Putney Student Travel has been offering summer travel abroad programs for 65 years, and has options to dozens of countries for middle school and high school students. They do not offer college programs. Putney is one of the few on our list to offer programs to students as young as sixth grade. Their middle school trips are between 10 days and three weeks, and include a handful of options: Costa Rica, France and Holland, and Spain. Students can choose from language learning programs, cultural exploration, and community service trips. High school students can spend a summer exploring the coral reefs in Fiji, learning about farm to table cooking in Tuscany and Umbria, or building a village classroom in Tanzania. Putney also offers pre-college summer programs for high school students in Amherst, MA, London, Paris, Florence, Madrid, Barcelona, or Shanghai. Students in these programs study and stay at a local university over the summer and explore the city. Middle school programs are available to students who have completed grades six through eight; high school programs are open to those who have completed grades nine through 12.
National Geographic Student Expeditions
National Geographic Student Expeditions began offering student travel programs in partnership with Putney Student Travel in 2008, with a focus on middle and high school summer programs that are in keeping with National Geographic’s mission. Program themes center around photography, filmmaking, community service and wildlife preservation. Their middle school trips range from 10 to 15 days and include a handful of options including Italy, Australia and Costa Rica. High school students can choose from dozens of destinations; examples of trips include a tour of India where teens attend a service with Tibetan monks and ride a camel through the desert, a photography program in Paris, and a community service project in the Dominican Republic. Their programs are unique because they give students the opportunity to learn from National Geographic experts in a variety of fields. These experts, which include filmmakers, biologists, archaeologist and photographers, join all of their programs, with the exception of some community service trips. Middle school programs are available to students who have completed grades six through eight; high school programs are open to those who have completed grades nine through 12.
Rotary Youth Exchange
Rotary Youth Exchange is a study-abroad program for high school students that offers the chance to spend a few weeks to a full year abroad, hosted by local Rotary clubs and families. The local club provides room and board with a host family and gives a small monthly stipend. Families of students traveling on a Rotary exchange can opt to host a foreign student in their home; it’s strongly encouraged, but not mandatory. Trips are organized and overseen by volunteer Rotarians and their families throughout the world. Interested students must go through an interview process and should contact a local Rotary club to learn more about exchange opportunities and requirements. Most Rotary exchanges are open to students ages 15 to 19. Requirements vary by program. Participants are responsible for airfare and other expenses, which vary by destination. Room and board are covered.
Broadreach has provided summer travel programs for middle school, high school and college students for 20 years. Middle school programs include about a dozen options within the Caribbean, Costa Rica and Panama, while high school and college programs branch further abroad, with more than 50 destinations including Cuba, Bali, Fiji and Spain, and South Africa. Programs vary in length from 12 days to four weeks and focus on a variety of interests including marine science, language, medicine, sailing and photography. Broadreach also offers a handful of parent/child trips for those students not quite ready to venture out on their own. Middle school programs are available to students who have completed grades seven and eight; high school programs are open to those who have completed grades nine through 12, and college programs to enrolled college students. Broadreach offers a variety of scholarships each year.
As the name implies, Greenheart Travel is known for its eco-friendly mission and offers several programs for teens including high school semester or year abroad, summer volunteer abroad and summer language programs. Summer programs range from two to six weeks, and include a choice of eight countries. Semester and year abroad programs offer more choices, including many countries in Europe, as well as Argentina and Australia. Students can learn about elephant conservation in Sri Lanka, attend language camp in Japan, or spend a year with a host family in Spain. Greenheart also offers one to 12-week volunteer programs in Costa Rica and India. True to their promise to stay green, a portion of each student’s tuition is donated to projects which offset carbon emissions, including a tree-planting program in Kenya. Summer and volunteer programs are open to students ages 14 to 18; semester and year abroad are open to ages 15 to 18.
Where There Be Dragons
Founded in 1993, and boasting by far the coolest name in student travel programs, Where There Be Dragons offers summer travel abroad for high school and college students to destinations “on the edge of the map.” This isn’t semester abroad in Paris. Students can choose to visit countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, where the focus is on small groups (12 students to four instructors) and off-the-beaten-path destinations like Myanmar, Senegal, and Jordan. Students can learn about post-genocide reconstruction in Rwanda, investigate social justice in Guatemala or live with a hill tribe community in Thailand. Most summer programs range from four to six weeks; gap year and college programs are by three-month semester. Generally speaking, high school programs are designed for those 15 to 18 years old, while semester study programs are for those 18 to 22. However, age requirements are not set in stone. Scholarships are available.
Experiment in International Living
Experiment in International Living (EIIL) is one of the oldest student travel companies, having been in operation for more than 80 years. Their focus is on sustainability, social change, language and culture, politics, and human rights. They offer summer travel programs for high school students, with destinations that include Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, North Africa and the Middle East, Africa South of the Sahara, and Asia. Most programs include a homestay, in combination with hotels and dorms. A unique variety of special interest trips are available, including studying the art of anime in Japan, nomadic and urban cultures in Mongolia, and gender equality in the Netherlands. Programs range from three to six weeks and are open to students who have completed grades nine through 12. Need-based scholarships and financial aid are available.
Sustainable Summer is an environmentally-friendly organization that offers travel programs to prepare high school students to be environmental leaders through international travel. Their destinations are chosen with the understanding that they offer unique opportunities for teaching sustainability, and currently include Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, The Amazon and the Galapagos. Sustainable Summer programs include nine-day “adventures” designed for first-time travelers, and longer “expeditions” designed for more experienced or ambitious students, which run 14 to 21 days. A glance at their offerings reveals an organic summer farming program in Ecuador in which students learn to implement sustainable models of food production, and exploring cultural sustainability and urban planning in Cuba. Programs are open to students ages 15 to 18. Scholarships are available.
Bonus: Semester at Sea
Semester at Sea, run by the Institute for Shipboard Education (ISE), is a study abroad program open to college and gap year students. The program is immediately unique in that it takes place on a ship, which travels to several different countries during the course of a semester, rather than just one destination. Classes take place onboard in nine classrooms while at sea, with learning extending off the ship through exploration in each port. ISE’s World Odyssey ship houses 600 students; and in addition to its classrooms has a library, union center, fitness center and pool. The ship’s itinerary changes every semester, but is always ambitious and usually includes a dozen or more countries. Students select from a variety of courses, which include world music, marketing, anthropology, and media among many others, and will get up to 15 credits if they are completed successfully. Semester at Sea requires a minimum GPA of 2.75 for college students, and 3.25 for gap-year students. Applicants must be a current college student who has completed at least one semester, or a high school senior for gap-year admittance. Each year ISE offers about $4 million in scholarships and grants.