A Teen’s Guide to the Cultural Galaxy

Foreign Locales Spark Deep Experiences



Summer is a perfect time for teens to broaden their horizons—mentally, emotionally, socially and literally—through foreign travel, and now is a good time to sign up. Programs enable young adults to explore different cultures and careers, learn to work effectively in multicultural arenas, serve communities in need and see the value of conserving resources, all while enjoying safe adventures away from home.

“Teens can have fun, gain new perspectives and get out of their comfort zones in a supportive environment,” says Theresa Higgs, vice president of global operations for United Planet (UnitedPlanet.org). The Boston nonprofit annually places more than 300 youths in 35 countries in programs ranging from environmental conservation to teaching English.

“We’ve had alumni return to start their own nonprofit organizations, change majors or even just change daily habits like turning off the water when they brush their teeth after learning about water scarcity issues,” says Higgs.

Programs range from language immersion, in which students are matched with host families, to studies aboard ships where they engage in marine conservation activities. Whatever the activity, teens are sure to be challenged and inspired in ways they couldn’t have envisioned before venturing forth. The most unexpected part is often the expansive thrill of exploring a foreign culture.

“On a normal day, after a delicious Indian breakfast, my host’s siblings and I would ride the bus to school. There, we learned Indian dance, art, cooking and many other aspects of the culture,” says 16-year-old Genna Alperin, who traveled to India with Greenheart Travel in 2014 (GreenheartTravel.org). “I learned how to communicate, share my lunch and be a good friend. When I returned, I wanted to be like the amazing people I had met.” The Chicago organization facilitates language camps, service trips and study abroad programs for high school students.

Learn to Speak Like a Local

Immersion can be both the fastest and most fun way to learn a language. Language study abroad programs steep students in foreign tongues in memorable settings that help accelerate learning, whether practicing Spanish in the coffee-growing highlands of Costa Rica or Mandarin in China’s bustling city of Beijing.

Many programs place students with host families where they can practice the language informally and deepen their understanding of local idioms, complementing classroom lessons from native teachers. Homestays also offer students an insider’s view of the regional culture, from cuisine to family life. Students can elect to learn an entirely new language with no prior exposure or build on beginner-level proficiency. Some programs even enable high school students to earn college credits.

Study Earth’s Underwater Vastness

Action Quest, in Sarasota, Florida, takes teens on seafaring voyages from the Florida Keys to the Caribbean, where they can learn to sail or scuba dive, study marine life and engage in projects to help restore coral reefs and protect sea turtle habitats (ActionQuest.com). Participants gain a deeper appreciation for the ocean’s fragile and complex ecosystems and knowledge of winds and tides. Acting as crew members, teens also learn teamwork and confidence-building skills.

Explore Careers as an Intern

Internships offer teens a chance to test potential career paths, gain resume-worthy work experience and strengthen college applications. While many internships target college students, an increasing number are open to high school students with companies, nonprofit organizations and government agencies nationwide and abroad. Fields can range from accounting, law and engineering to nonprofit work. AIESEC (aiesec.org), an international, student-run organization headquartered in Rotterdam, Netherlands, works with partners ranging from multinational companies to local nonprofits to offer opportunities in 126 countries for youths interested in interning abroad.

Serve Community, Discover Culture

Whether headed to a destination in Africa, Asia or the Americas, community service trips help teens gain enlightened perspectives and become responsible global citizens. Students can volunteer to teach English, build wells, restore historic sites or rebuild homes destroyed by natural disasters. Most service trips also include fun outings and options for learning about the host culture, such as learning traditional African dance or Thai cooking, or hiking the Inca Trail to the sacred site of Machu Picchu.

Witnessing the challenges faced by developing communities to access basic needs like clean water and health care can be transformative. Being a small part of a solution can awaken young people to their power to change the world.


Helpful clearinghouse sites for teen travel programs include TeenInk.com/summer and TransitionsAbroad.com/listings/study/teen.

Connect with freelance writer April Thompson at AprilWrites.com.

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