Is your teenager looking to polish his foreign language skills this summer? Or does she want to put her environmental passions to work to help rural villagers in Latin America?
Here’s how to find a program that will be safe and enriching:
1. Ask for references from past participants and contact them. If a program won’t give you names of people to contact, look elsewhere, says John Hishmeh, executive director of the Council on Standards of International Educational Travel, a nonprofit organization that accredits international programs.
2. Find out how health emergencies — small and large — are handled. What would happen if your child gets a cold, breaks a leg or has to be medically evacuated?
3. Make sure your teenager will get the academic credit she expects. She’ll need to work with her school counselor — before she leaves — to ensure that class credits are transferable.
4. Find out exactly what the program’s fee covers and what “extras” you’re expected to pay. Some programs include airfare, room and board, transportation around the host community and even some recreational trips. Others cover just some of these costs.
5. Read the fine print. Don’t sign a contract or send a deposit without finding out how far in advance you’ll know the details of where your child will be staying. The CSIET’s Hishmeh says the most frequent complaint he hears from parents is that they get the details of their teenager’s living arrangements at the last minute.
6. Ask how group leaders and host families are recruited and screened. Are leaders given background checks? How experienced are they? Is your child likely to stay with a host family that the program has used before? How are any problems between students and host families handled?
7. Ask for a contact person that you and your teenager can call while she is abroad. A good program is responsive, says CSIET’s Hishmeh. Both parents and participating students should have direct access to a program representative who can quickly address their questions and help resolve problems.
8. Find out the specific responsibilities of the host family or organization. Is someone in the family going to drive your student to language class or will she need to learn to take public transportation? Is the host family responsible for providing all meals?
9. Ask about your teenager’s responsibilities. Will he be expected to obey a curfew and do chores? Will he be able to bring friends to the house? Asking questions like these will not only help you choose a program but make it clear to your teenager that he’ll have certain obligations, too.
10. Find out what kind of orientation participants get to the program and to their host communities. Your teenager will need practical knowledge to stay safe and healthy in an unfamiliar place, and an orientation into the new culture. Learning how her host family’s customs and expectations will differ from yours will help avert misunderstandings.