All the World's a Summer Camp for These Teens

Travel programs take youths around the world to learn cultures, tolerance, and the value of community service

Until last summer, Ben Lawrence of Duxbury, Mass., had never needed a passport. The only time the 14-year-old had traveled outside the United States was on a family trip to Canada.

All that changed last July when he boarded a Tokyo-bound plane to spend a month in Nagoya, Japan. As one of 25 teenagers on a tour sponsored by Lex America in Belmont, Mass., he arrived at his host family's home with a small phrase book in his pocket and big hopes in his heart.

"I thought about my family, but I never got homesick," Ben says. "You just have to realize you're in a foreign country, and you can't go back."

That realization is becoming more common as increasing numbers of teenagers join adventurous summer tours. Instead of "running around a camp in matching T-shirts and shorts and living in cabins with long, unpronounceable Indian names," as Philip Bragdon, director of student travel at Interlocken in Hillsboro, N.H., puts it, they are running around the world - broadening their horizons and collecting lifelong memories.

Some travel to Europe, Asia, and Australia. Others backpack in the Rockies or bicycle across the US. Still others study languages, learn to sail in the Caribbean, or do community service in developing countries. In the process they are updating the old refrain, "Summertime, and the livin' is easy" with new lyrics: "Summertime, and the travelin' is exotic."

No statistics exist on the number of students taking part in these programs. Although teen tours have existed for more than three decades, new enterprises are springing up. Directors also note changes that are quietly reshaping the field: Students are getting younger. They are traveling farther. They, rather than their parents, are deciding how to spend their summer. And they are demanding specialized activities.

"Kids have become a lot more jaded about travel," says Mr. Bragdon. "Twenty years ago, kids were excited about nearly anyplace they went. Today they want to do something that really stretches their skills to the limit."

Bragdon himself coordinates two unusual programs. A photojournalism project in Eastern Europe pairs American teens with professional journalists. And a theater group called European Traveling Minstrels includes a residency at a refugee camp for Bosnian Muslims in Denmark. American students teach Bosnian children to perform commedia dell'arte, a type of Italian comedy.

Although the typical age in most programs is between 15 and 17, many groups now welcome middle-school students.

"Twelve is an age when kids are very open and flexible for the experience," says Steffie Samman, US program manager for Lex America. "They'll take the host parents as their parents more immediately, whereas the older ones are looking to get away from authority figures."

Most students come for personal enrichment. But tour operators find others arriving with more pragmatic motives. Maureen Murphy, program director of People to People Student Programs in Spokane, Wash., says, "They want things on their college application packets that will set them apart from all the other students who are doing well."

Depending on the program, accommodations can range from first-class hotels to hostels and tents. Fees vary from $550 a week for camping in the Rockies to nearly $4,000 for a month in Europe. Directors say costs are often comparable to those of a high-quality camp. Noting that his organization gives many scholarships, Bragdon says, "It's very important that we have a diverse group in every case. We work pretty hard to ensure that."

Similarly, at World Horizons International in Bethlehem, Conn., which specializes in community service, "students come from Beverly Hills to Bedford Stuyvesant," says Donald Lundy, assistant director.

Community service, in fact, is a popular draw, especially as more high schools require it for graduation. Mr. Lundy calls his organization a "junior Peace Corps," taking high school students to such countries as Costa Rica, Ecuador, Botswana, and Western Samoa. Among other projects, they repair community buildings and paint senior citizens' houses.

Hawaiian Ventures, based in Reston, Va., also includes service projects. "They see pretty quickly from our literature that it's not going to be a sitting-around-getting-a-suntan kind of thing, or hitting the malls," says Phil Lilienthal, executive director.

Language programs also prove popular. Sail Caribbean of Northport, N.Y., gives teenagers a chance to practice French when they're not learning to sail. Students learning Russian through Magellan Enterprises of Albuquerque, N.M., live with families in Moscow.

Inevitably, some young travelers face challenges. Kayin Peters of Sharon, Mass., was 17 when she spent six weeks with the European Traveling Minstrels last summer. "It was hard at times, living together and camping out," she says. "We didn't always all get along."

Even so, rewards were plentiful. "We got to experience a whole bunch of different cultures," Kayin says. "Before I went, I was just involved in my world. Then when I was in Denmark, seeing the refugee camp, I realized there are other people who need a lot of help. It was a big wakeup call."

Elizabeth Anderson of Edina, Minn., who spent three weeks in Europe on a People to People tour last summer when she was 14, saw "a few too many museums." But, she adds, "I learned that I could travel and be with people who might not necessarily be my friends if we weren't on the trip."

Jim Stein, owner of The Road Less Traveled in Chicago, which offers wilderness and cultural experiences in the western US, finds other benefits, such as increased self-confidence and a greater ability to work cooperatively. He adds, "They also learn better communication skills, more compassion for others, and a greater sensitivity to the environment."

Students usually sign a contract agreeing not to smoke, drink, or use drugs. Those who disobey do so at their peril. "At the beginning we sent several kids home each summer because they didn't follow our rules," says Mr. Lilienthal. "That got the message across pretty quickly."

Tour leaders find there are other messages to convey as well. Teenagers accustomed to American comforts sometimes fail to understand poorer cultures, says Judy Goucher, program director at Magellan Enterprises. "They ask, 'Why don't these people have air conditioning and microwave ovens?' "

As director of the Student Hosteling Program, a biking and camping tour based in Conway, Mass., Ted Lefkowitz sees similar dependence on conveniences.

"For the sake of the group experience and safety, we don't allow radios and Walkmans, but kids miss them," he says. "And we try to avoid McDonald's and pizza, but when they get the opportunity, there's an outcry."

Tour company owners advise parents and teens to read brochures and rules carefully. Talk to program directors, they say, and even ask for names of previous participants to call. If costs are beyond the family budget, ask about scholarships. Even if a company doesn't offer aid, directors may be able to suggest other avenues for funding.

Next month Ben Lawrence will board another international flight, this time for Spain, under the auspices of World Learning in Brattleboro, Vt. Noting the benefits of these experiences, he says, "In America, we think we're the perfect country. But you realize there's lots of stuff other countries have that's good too. You learn to respect other people."

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