learn as you go

Adventure: Summer programs for student travelers offer a world of opportunity.

March 31, 2002|By Jay Clarke | By Jay Clarke,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Last summer, 16-year-old Margarita Weintraub, a junior at Ransom Everglades High School in Miami, spent four weeks in Chile on a student exchange program conducted by the Experiment in International Living.

"The whole experience was amazing," she said. She and her group of 12 toured Santiago, Chile's capital city, for a few days, then traveled to a small town where each lived with a different family.

"While our brothers and sisters [the children of their host families] went to school, we went to classes. On weekends, we went out at night. We also did community service in our rural town -- cleaned up the town center, built fences, planted trees," said Margarita. "Everyone got very attached to their families."

Margarita's journey was one of hundreds of independent summer trips taken by high school and college students every year. These journeys, which are not school-sponsored, can take youngsters to locales as exotic as Easter Island and the Australian Outback.

Ranging in cost from somewhat less than $1,000 to $5,000, they may teach languages in a foreign country, take high schoolers on college preview trips, escort youths on outdoor adventures, mentor them in specific courses or simply go sightseeing.

In the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, student travel fell off sharply. But with the war in Afghanistan winding down, parents are breathing easier and student travel is again on the upswing. Because of the Sept. 11 hiatus in bookings, there's still space on tours that might otherwise be closed by this time, tour operators say.

Despite a trend toward booking later, tour operators caution that students who want to travel this spring and summer need to make decisions soon. Selecting a trip can take time.

"I started by asking people about different programs and doing some research on the Internet," said Margarita's mother, Teresa Weintraub. "To me, safety and supervision were concerns, because my daughter was just 16. I wanted to make sure the program was well run."

Weintraub said she checked the credentials of a number of tour operators and chose this one because "it was meticulous, careful about its leaders and had really good experience." A tour leader stayed with Margarita's group in Chile the entire time, and the tour operator also sent a representative.

Travel by a teen-ager to as far-off a destination as Chile is not as unusual as it may seem.

"Traveling today is done at an earlier age, and they're going farther away. Even sixth-graders are going half a world away," said Michael Palmer, executive director of the Student and Youth Travel Association.

"The world isn't as big as it used to be, with communications so much better. Parents are more willing to send their kids further away," agreed Jim Stein, owner of the Road Less Traveled, a company that operates wilderness adventures for youths aged 15 to 18 in five countries.

And today's travel opportunities go well beyond the school trip to Washington, or the student exchange in such traditional destinations as England.

Trips get more active

"What's happened is a shift in emphasis to the more active and more educational," said Neal Waldman of Musiker Discovery Programs, an operator of tours for students in seventh to 12th grades.

Adventure tours -- hiking in the Rockies, sea kayaking off the Costa Rican coast, climbing glaciers in Alaska, for example -- have zoomed in popularity in recent years; so have trips to once-exotic locales like Kenya and Easter Island.

"The whole idea is to make these programs not the bus kind of trip, [though] that's still important, but to experience things," said Waldman. "I'd rather have a kid on a horse in Bryce Canyon than looking at the Grand Canyon and saying, 'Oh, that's beautiful!' "

Such travel, too, can have a major impact on students.

"It definitely changed my life," said Kate Rosenberg, 16, of Miami Beach, who has taken two Road Less Traveled trips. "I think what changed me the most was exposure to a different kind of lifestyle. In the city, there's a lot of attachment to material things. Out there, there's never that kind of certainty, nothing is predictable. It teaches you a lot about being human."

Kate's mother, Linda, agrees. "It was one of those incredible experiences. She has a totally different view on life in the world, on perseverance and how to get along with people."

Kate's first summer trip two years ago took her on a hiking and camping trek in the Rocky Mountains. "We went backpacking for three weeks, then a week of white-water rafting and kayaking and two days of rock climbing in the Tetons," she said.

"The trip requires so much. You have to stay focused on your tasks, driving yourself. The best thing was the group atmosphere. There's always 10 other people pushing you; you're never alone."

Last summer, Kate went with the same company to Alaska for an intensive six weeks of backpacking in the Wrangle Mountains, kayaking among whales and sea otters and climbing glaciers.

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