The only spring break I remember from my high school and college years was the one when I was 16. My dad, a farmer, hurt his back and needed me to take his place planting all of that year's corn crop. The crookedness of the rows I planted became the subject of some good-natured ribbing that summer, and helped propel me on the path from agriculture to newspapers.
Sitting on a tractor from sunup to sundown that spring, the farthest I journeyed from my Hoosier roots was when I got lost in the AM radio lyrics of Maria Muldaur's sultry "Midnight at the Oasis."
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But for dozens of suburban kids, this year's spring break was an international adventure. Our son, Ben, an oboe player, just came back from spending spring break with six dozen fellow high school musicians in Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Berlin. Twenty-eight members of the Libertyville High School orchestra and 14 parent chaperones spent their spring break performing in Cuba. More than 120 members of the Lake Zurich High School choir, and dozens of parents, just got back from spending their spring break performing at the Vatican and elsewhere in Italy.
Summer provides even more chances for kids to travel abroad for educational purposes. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire offers trips to China, Spain, Germany, Costa Rica and across Europe. School District U-46's World Language and International Studies Academy at Streamwood High School gives students a chance to hone their skills while staying abroad.
"All of our travel has a curriculum component," says Angela Sisi, director of student services at Stevenson.
When she was a junior at Buffalo Grove High School, Sisi's family hosted an exchange student from Austria and then she spent the summer of 1991 with a family in Austria. "You see so much that you might never see if you never left the United States," Sisi says.
While social media and other technologies can bring the world to a classroom, there is nothing like visiting a foreign land to broaden one's perspectives. "Travel blows away iPads," quips Ken Latka, dean of students at Stevenson.
International travel is a "capstone" experience for students, says Al Fleming, associate superintendent for Community High School District 128, which includes Libertyville and Vernon Hills high schools. Fleming says those travel opportunities provide students a chance "to use what they've learned in the classroom literally in the real world."
Once regarded as a luxury reserved for well-to-do empty-nesters, traveling to other nations soon became a rite of passion for backpacking young people who had just finished college. Now it has trickled down to high school curriculums. A recent British online poll found that 56 percent of American students say they would like to study overseas.
"Students can earn almost all of their (cost for the) trip," Fleming says, explaining how schools host fundraisers and even provide scholarships. Our son made nearly $1,000 selling plants through a band fundraiser and used money from his park district job to pay half of his remaining cost.
"Our overall numbers increased 30 percent in 2011 and 55 percent in 2012 thanks to teens becoming more and more interested in cultural exchange," says Anna Labat, director of Greenheart Travel, a not-for-profit cultural exchange immersion company in Chicago. Founded in 1985 in St. Charles, the company sent seven students abroad that first year. Now, it handles the exchange of 10,000 students coming from and going to foreign lands each year.
While far more foreign students come to the United States to study than we send to other nations, Labat says everyone from high school French teachers to the U.S. State Department recognize the value in letting our high school students visit other parts of the globe.
"Studying abroad both short term and long term is one of the best ways to gain maturity and independence, stand out on college and job applications, gain a global perspective and truly excel academically and personally," says Labat, 28, who grew up in Riverwoods and spent the summer between her junior and senior years at Deerfield High School studying in Spain.
Travel exposes young people to new foods, languages, music, art, culture, religions, fashion and an understanding that there so much beyond our lives in suburbia. Unlike that spring break when I planted crooked rows of corn, today's traveling students are planting seeds that will help them blossom throughout their lives.