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The Experiment in International Living

April 7, 2010

The Experiment in International Living is an organization that offers summer programs for high school students. A summer with The Experiment is not a trip or a tour. Each program, in 30 countries world-wide, challenges young people to develop a close connection with the people and culture of another country. Kids experience daily life firsthand within a caring host family and as part of a diverse group sharing a fun and thought-provoking adventure .

With so many activities to choose from, any tips on how to organize your teens’ summer?

This is perhaps the toughest question I get, but also one of the most common.  My response depends entirely on what kind of person we’re talking about.  Some students really need to spend time around home, or working, or studying.  Others have a little more freedom to go and explore the world in ways that teenagers have been dreaming about basically forever.  I think you want to take some kind of inventory of what experiences your child has had, what he or she wants to have in the future—what they hope to become both professionally and personally—and then once you have an idea about goals, you can start addressing what kinds of summer experiences will help your son or daughter achieve those goals.

When is a child ready for a traveling program like The Experiment in International Living?

People mature at different rates, of course, and we find that honest conversations between parents and children—and sometimes favorite teachers—yield a pretty accurate decision about when any particular child is ready for a 3-5 week program like ours.  Some students really are ready to go right after their ninth grade, but some should probably wait.  I know I wasn’t quite ready and I needed to mature a bit, so I went the summer after my sophomore year (to Australia) and that was perfect timing for me.  It was still challenging, but not overwhelming. We learn the most when we’re challenged—you want to throw a ball *this much* above someone’s head so he or she has to jump for it, if you catch my meaning.  That’s what I like about these programs—we do a good job of pitching that ball at the right height for each kid.

What questions should parents ask a traveling camp?

The first and foremost question I think is on most parents’ minds is “will my child be safe—and what safeguards are in place to make sure that if some health concern arises, my child will be taken care of?”  I doubt many folks need me to prompt them to ask that question, though.  Assuming the organization passes that particular hurdle, then I think you want to ask questions about how long they’ve been in the field, whether or not they maintain offices in the target country year-round, whether they’re a for- or non-profit organization, whether they give out financial aid or scholarships and, if so, to what degree and in what amounts; incidentally, I’d ask that question even if I didn’t need that because it’s important to me that groups are composed of folks from different walks of life.  If there’s a homestay, I’d ask how the families are chosen;  also, ask how leaders are chosen and trained.  Then, of course, I’d ask particular questions based on the theme or focus of the program—if your child wants to go on a language training program, for example, where will the classes be and to what degree will classes be reinforced by experience in the town, village, or city?  There are dozens of good questions to ask.

How should parents prepare their kids for an overseas program?

I recommend that a student (and a parent, too!) should read a little about the history of a country, its important milestones and culture.  If time is a factor, even checking out Wikipedia and the CIA World Factbook (online)  can lead to some interesting discoveries and help get the student thinking about what he or she is likely to encounter and it isn’t likely to take more than half an hour or so.  Knowing some of the host county’s language—even if it’s just “please,” “thank you,” and “where’s the bathroom?” are always a good idea for a traveler, so either provide that for your child or make sure that the program will do so.  Knowing a little of the language lets folks know that you’re trying to get to know the culture and a little good will can be important, especially if your child’s trying to find that bathroom.  Also, as a parent, try and feel comfortable with the idea of your son or daughter being out of contact for a while.  If you’re constantly worried about where they are and what they’re doing and why they aren’t getting answering your emails and phone calls, it’s going to be hard for your child to relax enough to enjoy the experience that you’ve all agreed they’re ready to have.  Trust your children and the organization you’ve sent them with.

Any last tips for parents?

I suggest really paying attention to the packing list that you’ve been given—that’s going to be a great indicator or what’s in store: if you’re asked to bring hiking boots and a warm jacket, bring those things and don’t pack extra if you can help it! It’s amazing to me that over the last few years of leading programs in the desert and the jungle that some kids show up without a water bottle.  Also, consider leaving behind the electronics, especially laptops and cell-phones.  Everywhere those items will be useful, there are going to be substitutes available, like phone cards and internet cafes; laptops brought from home get left behind on busses and trains and phones have been known to go into the water ( I made this mistake in the Gulf of Mexico, so this isn’t just a “kid” thing!).  It’s been pretty convincingly demonstrated that teenagers will not *actually* die without constant access to the internet and text messaging, despite their protests to the contrary.  Plus, it’s a lot easier to embrace a new culture when you don’t have your hands full constantly checking back in with the one you left behind.

Lastly, please tell us what’s special about the Experiment in International Living?

It’s hard not to answer “everything” here because it’s true.  But that comes off as silly, so I’ll be more expansive, even though it means some stuff will get left out:  EIL has been around since before the Second World War and the people who lead our programs and work in our offices in Vermont and around the world are some of the most dedicated folks I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.  That history and dedication permeates everything they do—from choosing the host families and members of a particular group, to group leader training, to the scholarship and financial aid work. As a teacher, it’s exceedingly rare to devise any experience that reaches 100% of your students on a deep and meaningful level—but I think that each and every EIL program does just that.  I came back from my summer in Australia in 1986 an entirely different person—more confident, possessed of a broader world view, and more sensitive to the process of cross-cultural communication.  The vast majority of students I meet who’ve done EIL feel the same way—they remember the 3-5 weeks they spend with us and their host families for the rest of their lives.

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