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5 Summer Travel Programs for High School Students + Our Review

“Travel is the best education” is a time-tested saying, and with good reason: voyaging to a different country and experiencing a different culture can broaden your worldview, give you unique perspectives on life, make you more appreciative of and sensitive toward people, and even encourage you to forge new career paths. If you’re a high school student who wants to travel, there are many study-abroad programs that introduce you to new cultures and give you practical experience in your subject of interest.  


How can a travel abroad program help your college application?


1. You can learn a new language

Speaking another language is an important skill that can serve you well in many aspects of your life. Speaking another language can help you integrate better with people of different ethnicities, and broaden your career prospects. Bilingual and multilingual people tend to have greater cognitive abilities.   

2. You show college recruiters that you’re willing to challenge yourself

Living in a country where everyone speaks a different language and you don’t know anyone can be intimidating. But, doing so can show that you’re willing to put yourself in challenging situations, that you don’t give up, and are determined to see projects through. 


3. You learn how to interact in a multiethnic environment

Traveling and living abroad can teach you how to check your inherent biases, show sensitivity toward other cultures, and live with people from different backgrounds — all of which are important aspects of college life, where you will meet and study alongside students from around the world. 


With these points in mind, here are 5 summer travel programs that can boost your college profile:


Travel for Teens offers immersive travel abroad experiences for older high school students completing grades 11 and 12. They offer 29 unique programs spread across North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania that run for between one week and one month. The company is accredited by the American Society of Travel Advisories and the President’s Volunteer Service Award for implementing community-oriented programs that help give back.


Travel for Teens offers specialized tours and packages for older teens, with the belief that they are on the cusp of adulthood and can benefit greatly from learning how to be independent and navigating life in a foreign country. Tours organized by Travel for Teens often go off the beaten path, resist herding students onto tour buses, and instead focus on walking through cities to discover their curiosities. Itineraries are flexible and subject to what is going on in the city you’re visiting — they also make an effort to incorporate things you’d like to do, be it going to a festival, visiting an art gallery, etc. Moreover, Travel for Teens places special emphasis on cultural learning — you can visit a hill tribe in Thailand, learn about falconry in Ireland, and experience cheese-making in Switzerland! The company shuns eating at fast food chains and focuses on authentic local cuisine. Some programs also involve community service, where you can work on building local infrastructure. 


What does the program cost?

Depending on your chosen trip, you pay between $3,000 and $10,000. 


Note: the cost does not include airfare, visa fees, and medical insurance. Lodging, food, tour guides, and transportation are covered in the fee.


How long does a trip last?

Again, this depends on where you want to go: you can choose to spend seven days in Costa Rica or up to a month in New Zealand


What do we think of the program?

We like Travel for Teens for its dedicated programs aimed at older high school kids and their emphasis on creating a sense of independence and agency among teenagers. Their tours go off the beaten path and help you better understand a culture, and we appreciate that they engage in community-oriented activities, where possible, teaching students the importance of giving back. 


The Smithsonian Institution’s travel program is open to students from grades 8 to 12 and combines learning through immersive travel experiences both within the U.S. and abroad. Through the program, you can learn about climate change in Iceland, culture and innovation in Japan, wildlife conservation in Kenya, space travel in Houston, architecture in Denmark, and many more topics in different locations worldwide. During your trip, the Smithsonian encourages you to think of and complete a project related to what you are studying. The programs are led by the Smithsonian’s team of experts — museum curators, researchers collecting data in the field, conservationists, etc. 


Before leaving for your trip, Smithsonian gives you access to its Learning Lab, its archival resource for you to familiarize and educate yourself about the place you will be visiting and what you will be learning there. A typical day in the program includes beginning with a brief of what you will be studying/researching, an excursion into the field, and participating in local cultural activities. 


Who can apply for the program?

All students through grades 8 to 12 are eligible for the program. You must be at least 13 years old


How much does the program cost?

Program fees are exclusive of airfare and visa fees. A trip to a European destination costs between $7,500 and $9,000, while Oceana and Africa can cost up to $10,000. Programs last between 12 and 20 days.


How many students are in a group?

Group sizes range from 15 to 25 people, depending on the destination.   


What do we think of the program?

Smithsonian Student Travel is a great option if you want to participate in deep, hands-on learning during your study abroad program. You get to meet and learn from sector experts, get practical experience in a discipline you’d like to study, and complete a project of your choice, all of which will foster deeper scientific understanding and cultural awareness.  


The U.S. Department of Defense launched NSLI-Y in 2006 as a full scholarship program to encourage language learning among young people and to train them with the tools to conduct transnational dialogue, contribute to national security, and promote learning between cultures. Through NSLI-Y, high school students can opt for either summer or full academic-year programs to learn Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, Russian, and Turkish in regions where these languages are widely spoken. 


NSLI-Y does not require any previous foreign language knowledge and strongly encourages students who have not previously participated in exchange programs or previously lived abroad to apply. For the eight-week summer program, students will have four hours of language classes and two hours of either cultural classes or community service every day.  


Who can apply for the program?

To apply, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a U.S. citizen

  • Be 15-18 years of age and enrolled in grades 9-12

  • Have a minimum GPA of 2.5


Additionally, if you have participated in the summer program, you cannot apply for the full academic year program if they occur in the same calendar year. Academic year program participants cannot apply for the summer program. 

How much does the program cost?

Nothing! The program is fully funded.


What is the cohort size?

For the 2024 summer program and the 2024-25 academic program, NSLI-Y will select 550 students.


What do we think of the program?

NSLI-Y is highly selective and prestigious. It is fully funded and gives you the opportunity to immerse yourself in another country and learn its language. We recommend NSLI-Y as it's a great way to make your college application stand out and can prepare you for a career in policy and international relations if you so choose. The program’s alumni have gone on to win prestigious scholarships and have studied at universities like Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and John Hopkins, to name a few, and work at various U.S. government agencies, reputed think tanks, and large consulting firms.


We have covered this program in detail here!


The Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE) offers 3-4 week-long summer programs in 35 countries globally, with some of their summer programs even offering up to four college credits! Students can choose whether they’d like to focus on arts and culture, STEM, language, or social change during their summer abroad. 


CIEE programs are created in line with U.S. learning standards like the U.S. High School National Core Arts Standards, Next Generation Science Standards,  American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. You can choose to study marine conservation in South Africa, entrepreneurship in China, or engineering in Germany, to name a few options. Students part of the program stay with host families in the destination countries. Every year, CIEE offers 1,000 students the opportunity to study abroad.


Who can apply for the program?

Any U.S. high school student is eligible to apply.


What does the program cost?

The cost of CIEE programs ranges between $5,000 to $7,500 depending on where they are located. Airfare and visa fees are not included in the cost of the program.

Financial aid is available. CIEE offers up to $6 million in scholarships annually.


What is the cohort size?

Around 1,000 students travel with CIEE annually.


What do we think of the program?

If you’re an ambitious high school student who wants hands-on experience in their subjects of interest, then you should definitely consider applying to CIEE. What’s more, some of their study programs offer college credits and financial aid, should you need it. 


Where There Be Dragons offers off-beat, immersive travel abroad programs lasting between two and six weeks, with the option of college credit. Study Spanish in Guatemala or Mandarin in Taiwan, learn about different Himalayan tribes and their cultures in Nepal, India, and Bhutan, study marine conservation in Indonesia, and many more opportunities! You travel to and live in rural settings, learn local customs, and partake in community-building activities. Where There Be Dragons has 19 summer programs open to students aged 15-22.


All Dragons programs include language studies, community engagement, elements of social and environmental justice, where students work with local activists and community leaders, and independent study projects, where you work with a local mentor and investigate a custom, tradition, local art, etc. A typical day includes breakfast at your homestay followed by language classes, lunch, and classes for your independent study project.  


Who is eligible for the program?

The summer programs are open to all students aged 15-22. While most Dragons students are from the U.S., international students are welcome to apply.


What does the program cost?

Depending on the length and location, programs cost between $5,500 and $8,500, excluding airfare and visa fees. Financial aid is available to deserving candidates. 


What do we think of the program?

We like the Dragons program for its adventurous and offbeat nature and for its focus on rural, community-oriented living. The program also offers financial aid and college credits. The Dragons program asks that you be comfortable with ambiguity, limited connection to your friends and family, and be independent. If you feel like you align with these principles and are adventurous, consider applying!


Bonus — the Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you are interested in doing university-level research, then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, over 4000 students applied for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.


Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students.


Kieran Lobo is a freelance writer from India, who currently teaches English in Spain. 


Image Source: Smithsonian Student Travel logo

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