The summer after eighth grade, my son Carlos spent five weeks at a camp in Venezuela; I spent those five weeks back home wringing my hands and wondering whether this had been a good decision. I needn’t have worried. He loved the experience so much that he begged to return every summer while he was in high school to work as a counselor. With so many options these days, finding a camp that’s a good match for a child can be a bit daunting, even more so when it involves camps abroad. Thankfully, there are resources to guide parents and students to the right choice.

A World of Possibilities

“There are a lot of ways to have an international experience,” says Carey Rivers,

owner of Tips On Trips and Camps, a free advisory service that helps parents find the right program for their child. Since its inception in 1971, the staff has worked with thousands of families, and Rivers explains that the type of programs they recommend “depends on the maturity of the child and what the goals are.” Parents need to consider how adventuresome a child is because “a home stay can be a life-changing experience for the right child, but for another child it might be too tough.” While there are international camp programs for children as young as 6, the majority of programs start at the eighth grade level. “It’s the unusual 6-year-old that’s ready to go to Switzerland for summer camp, and it’s the unusual parent who wants to do that,” Rivers says.

According to Rivers, “There is a program for almost every goal, desire and interest.” Some of the options include a stay at a camp, with a family or at a university, or travel and lodging at hotels. The focus may be language/cultural immersion, sports, community service, outdoor adventure or a combination of elements. How about restoring an old castle in the morning and hiking in the Pyrenees in the afternoon? Or attending a Spanish soccer camp in Madrid? Or sailing from port to port in the Mediterranean or studying marine biology by scuba diving in the Caribbean?

Sandra-Lynn Berson of The Camp Experts and Teen Summers in Potomac says that her company has been working with parents for 29 years and has offices in the United States and throughout the world, including Israel, Spain, France and Germany. She agrees with Rivers that the first thing to consider is the individual child and “what [he is] looking to get out of the program.” Berson speaks with enthusiasm about recommending individualized programs to her clients. In addition to the maturity level of the child, she considers the abilities, preferences and personality of the child when making a match. “The kids have to want to go,” says Berson. “They’re not going to be happy if they don’t want to go.”

There was no question that 16-year-old Michaela Cohen-Fuentes wanted to go to France for a month to gain fluency in French. Her trip, which included two weeks staying with a host family in Tours, was challenging for the then-15-year-old, who says, “I didn’t know how difficult it would be, because it was literally day and night all in French. It was full immersion, and I didn’t know any French at all.” While she confesses that she felt lonely because of the language barriers, she also recognizes that she was placed with an amazing family and says, “it was a really good learning experience.” She laughs when she tells me that by her third week in France she sat next to an old woman on a park bench and understood everything the woman was telling her. She says, “My language skills are much, much better because of that trip. It really helped me to transform my textbook French into speaking French.”

Do Your Homework

When he was 16, Matt Brewster was invited to participate in the People to People International Student Ambassador program, a group started by Dwight Eisenhower that provides travel experiences to different countries. The three weeks spent traveling to various places in New Zealand and Australia spoke to Matt's sense of adventure and interest in international travel, but convincing his mother Debra, who had never heard of the program, was another story. Months before the scheduled departure, People to People arranged monthly meetings for students and parents to be educated on all aspects of the trip. Hearing the testimonials from students who had participated in prior trips and meeting some of the advisors created the comfort level Brewster needed to part with her “little baby” for three weeks. She has “without reservation” recommended the program to other parents and says, “If your kids are extended this opportunity, don’t be afraid to take advantage of it.”

Once a match is made, Rivers believes that it’s important for parents and students to have an understanding of all the issues and to ask questions:

  • What is the primary mission of the program?
  • How closely will the child be supervised?
  • Is the student’s knowledge of the language adequate for the program?
  • What are the alcohol and curfew rules?
  • What is the policy if the child violates one of the rules?
  • How will the program handle a medical emergency?

Most programs provide contracts that must be signed by the parents and the students, and knowing what is expected is key to having a positive experience. “The programs will give the students a reading list. They talk to them about fitness and getting in shape and not showing up with brand new boots that are not broken in,” Rivers says.

Both Rivers and Berson encourage parents to check references, and Berson advises to call the directors and talk with them to address any unanswered questions and to assess through parental intuition whether it’s the right fit. “I always say it comes down to a mother’s gut in the end. All our decisions as mothers come down to our maternal instincts.”

Consider Costs

Berson says that parents can expect to pay about $1,400 per week for a European program, and this cost may not include air fare. Some programs may allow the use of air miles, and if needed, parents are encouraged to ask about the availability of financial assistance. According to Rivers, “Latin America can be less [expensive]; community service is less. If they’re hiking and camping, it will be less than traveling on a bus and staying at a five-star hotel.” She cautions, “To a certain extent, you get what you pay for. If a program is a whole lot less expensive than all the others, then it usually means that something is missing, and it’s probably the activities and the recreation.”

Life-Changing Journeys

The benefits of these international experiences for students are now widely recognized, and a few schools in the D.C. metropolitan area now offer programs as part of their curriculum. Rivers shares the story of her business partner’s son who wrote his college essay on the moment that he got a joke in Spanish. She says, “The feeling that ‘I can do this’ is really great for kids.” She also says that “summer programs do such a good job of teaching acceptance. It’s a less competitive environment than a school setting, there are fewer issues of success and failure; everything is geared toward success so there’s more acceptance and teamwork.”

The summer following her trip to France, 16-year-old Cohen-Fuentes decided that she would like to continue working on her French but wanted to try something less intense than a home stay. Rivers recommended that she try a camp in Switzerland. Cohen-Fuentes speaks in glowing terms of the beautiful setting of the camp and the opportunity to meet kids from the international community. When she talks about the personal challenges of “putting you out of your element completely,” it’s to explain how she came to understand her limits and how much this helped her. It is a sentiment shared by Brewster who says,“Don’t be afraid to do something that’s out of your comfort zone.”

Although he struggles to articulate exactly how those three weeks as a student ambassador shaped him, Matt speaks passionately about his experiences. “I learned that there’s a lot more out there.” As part of the program, he was required to keep a journal of daily activities and recommends, “Put as much detail into it while it’s still fresh in your mind.” He also suggests exchanging contact information (name, e-mail address and phone numbers) with the people you meet. Brewster consults his journal to tell me about his experiences meeting the native people and learning about their culture, feeding wild dolphins, snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef and horseback riding on a huge farm in Australia. “It’s difficult to put into words how it affected me, but I know that it did.” He pauses to reflect and concludes,“It definitely changed me as a person.”

Summer travel opportunities include:

  • Community service in a foreign country, including those in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Australia, in combination with language learning (may or may not include a home stay), plus additional activities, including wilderness and/or travel.
  • Language immersion, often with a home stay, plus travel and adventure activities.  The range of languages offered is broad and includes French, Spanish, Italian, German, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic.
  • International university or high school-based experience, typically with two courses including language classes.  Non-classroom activities include travel, wilderness expeditions, cultural activities like flamenco dancing or cooking, and sports clinics -- especially soccer.
  • Adventure expeditions, which may include hiking, biking, sailing, skiing, rafting and some touring.  These often include some community service or a bit of language exposure as well.