Teens on a Mission: What a Trip

For high school students, it's the ultimate field trip -- real-life lessons learned by volunteering abroad.

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008; Page P01

When Bethesda high school student Jenna Kusek first saw where she'd be living for three weeks in Tanzania, she thought, "You've got to be kidding."

This hole in the ground is the toilet? A trickle of cold water from an elevated hose is the shower?

But Kusek soon gained a new perspective. The white stucco house she shared with other teen volunteers last summer was a mansion by local standards, and better than the concrete-block house they would spend their days building for a local teacher. A cold shower, she realized, was a luxury unavailable to the village kids. A year after the trip, tears come to her eyes when she talks about how guilty she began feeling about having access to any kind of shower.

"Compared to how people lived in the village, our housing was too good to be true," says Kusek, 18, a senior at Walt Whitman High School. "I knew before I went to Africa that I was blessed, but I had no idea how lucky I was. I can't believe now the things we once took for granted."

Kusek's experience is being repeated by an ever-growing number of American teens traveling all over the world, led by dozens of companies feeding an appetite not only for more-exotic travel, but for travel with a purpose.

Time was, a bus through Europe was the ultimate trip for a lucky high school student of a certain class. Jeffrey Shumlin, co-director of Vermont-based Putney Student Travel, remembers that for the first 20 years after his family founded the business, it was called European Travel Camp. No more.

"Today, traveling to Europe does not represent as large a cultural leap as it once did," Shumlin says. "Kids today seek greater challenges farther off the beaten track." Besides, American teens from prosperous families have been taught not to waste time. "They have extremely demanding schedules; they are pressured by schools and parents to compose a well-rounded image for applying for college. They are in a pressure cooker at a very young age, and, as a result, when they think about what to do for the summer, they want something meaningful and worthwhile."

There has for some years been a niche market for teen trips to exotic places with an emphasis on cultural immersion and community service, but now the market is exploding. Dozens of travel companies, with such names as "Where There Be Dragons" and "Global Routes," arrange the trips, as do church and civic groups. The latest player: National Geographic. This summer the nonprofit organization's new Student Expeditions arm will begin teaming teens with National Geographic Society archaeologists, photographers, scientists and writers to explore such things as the Inca Empire and the treasures of India, while also arranging for them to spend time working with impoverished children or participating in projects such as clearing forest trails.

Lynn Cutler of National Geographic said the organization commissioned a study and found that teens who can afford travel want purpose and personal development. Market growth is expected: This is the largest generation of young people in history, and a million children worldwide will turn 12 every year for the next decade. Even now, students make up 24 percent of all international travelers. They are traveling at earlier ages, going on more-expensive trips and going to destinations farther from home than any previous generation, according to the Student & Youth Travel Association, a trade group.

What's It Really Worth?

Companies serving this emerging market produce trips with various degrees of work and play. One of Kusek's four weeks in Tanzania was spent on such activities as photographing exotic animals on safari in Ngorongoro Crater and hiking around Mount Kilimanjaro. The other three weeks of the Putney-sponsored trip, she lived and worked in the village of Miangarini, mixing concrete and stacking heavy concrete blocks. She valued both experiences equally.

"I never took one day for granted," Kusek says. "Every moment in Tanzania was the most amazing moment of my life."

How much a teen gets out of it depends, of course, on the teen. Several of those on Kusek's trip were forced by their parents to come, Kusek says -- a confession she found "horrific to my ears. It was a dream come true for me, and it should have been for every single one of them." Several boys never did any work. Kusek says she "just looked past that, figuring I'm going to build something that's really needed, and I'm going to feel good about it."

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