Foreign Travel, Volunteering & Exchange Programs

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Gap Year Opportunities in France

Dec 2013

Our son, always a Francophile and fluent in French, is seriously considering a gap year with much of the time spent in France. We're looking for a solid, reputable program with an established track record in this area and would very much appreciate your suggestions. We'll be attending the gap year fair coming up in January, but it would be a big help to hear directly from anyone in our teen community with experience in this area. He's graduating from a local high school in June, is a first-rate student, mature, thoughtful, hard worker, heading to college back east but needing a change of scenery first. Interested in law, politics, history. Would love to live with a family in a home-stay situation of at all possible and would be a great addition to another family for a few months. Loves Paris but happy/fortunate to live elsewhere in France during this time. Thanks for your suggestions

Look up (American Field Service)- one of the longest around and most reputable exchange organizations for teen-agers (high school and gap years). My son spent a year in France living with a family there and had a fantastic experience. Happy AFS family

I spent a year abroad with AFS (in Australia) and give it top marks as a cultural exchange program. It is a well run program with support for participants as needed. check it out at Mary in Oakland

The AFS program is great but there are two caveats: They will let you pick northern or southern hemisphere but will not guarantee you a specific language or country. So if you require a French language experience,look elsewhere. The three Americans I knew best who went abroad with AFS came back speaking Italian, Flemish and Swedish (and you know they didn't study those in any American school).

The second thing is that ideally an exchange experience creates familial ties. AFS is pretty good at this. But there are pitfalls to any exchange program. It's asking a lot of a teen to put him or her in an unhappy family, or a family that's hugely different in values and activities, and expect the teen to realize that it's not his/her fault it's not a happy experience. Also the teen expects to have to adjust to the new family but doesn't expect adjustment problems when he/she returns to his/her birth family, who may be clueless or indifferent about, or actually hostile towards, the different person he/she's become. Just my two cents.

CIEE has gap year programs in France; the one in Rennes may have a home stay. Check them out at They also send a rep to the gap year fair held in SF and Marin in the beginning of the year (Jan 12). See You may get some other ideas there too. Gap year parent

Biology Summer Program abroad - Spanish

Dec 2012

My son is a high school junior and thinking of majoring in biology in college. He has taken 9th grade biology and AP biology. This upcoming summer he is interested in a summer biology program. We googled and found some good options nearby - Berkeley especially. However, we are also thinking of travelling this summer. Do you know of a biology program happening this summer: - Nearby (our google search led us to Berkeley, UCSF - only for SFUSD students, and Stanford) - Abroad - If so, in a Spanish speaking country (whether the program is in English or Spanish) - We'd likely take language classes in addition to his being in the program if it's a Spanish speaking country - we both speak quite a bit of Spanish. - I may come even if he lives in a dorm/with a family through the program, and do my own thing. He's very independent and competent - I'd only join because I want to travel as well. - If we both needed to find accommodations we'd be happy to live with a family. Leah

While not a biology program per se, I can recommend ARCAS Guatemala as a wonderful place to volunteer and work with folks interested in animals. They have a facebook page and also a website at Guatemala has a ton of language schools and you can live with families while there although maybe not at the Peten ARCAS site, but definitely at the Parque Hawaii site. My teen daughter (between 9th & 10th grades) volunteered there and loved it. Look at the ARCAS website for all the information and the volunteer handbook to see if this is something of interest. Carol

Suggestions for summer pre-college foreign experience

May 2012

My son, a rising college freshman who will be 19 in August, is interested in a gap year or summer 2012 'gap' type experience abroad. He's been fortunate to travel abroad in style with family during his K-11 years, but I am looking for a more 'real life' experience for him for 3-4 weeks this summer, in which he would be integrated into the local community, and perform meaningful community service. The David Denman mentioned on this site has retired. Does anyone know of a consultant well versed in gap summer and gap year programs, and/or does anyone have knowledge of programs offered through; Cross Cultural Solutions; Gap Ywar South Africa; GVI/USA; or Projects Abroad (all culled from a Gap Year Fair website)? Many thanks

Try Loop Abroad for Southeast asia trips. My daughter has done amazingly w these- they are for late high school and gap year students. Prep school Mom

Summer programs for travel and community service

Oct 2011

Does anyone have experience with a teen summer program that involves travel and community service? We are looking for either domestic or foreign travel, NOT a language immersion program, that has good supervision, and safety as a high priority. mom

My 17yr old daughter went to Nicaragua for three weeks this past summer with Al Campo International on a service/adventure trip. There were some kids who were as young as 14. Safety is definitely important to them - they want to stay in business! - that said, almost everyone got some version of ''turista'' for several days. Go on the website, and check it out. victoria

To the mom asking about summer programs and the mom asking about the safety of programs in Mexico: Please consider AMIGOS, the program that - since 1965 - has sent thousands of teens to Latin America for a summer of language immersion, youth leadership, and cultural awareness. Youths spend 6-8 weeks living with a family, working with kids in schools, and carrying out community-based projects. Requirements: age 16 by Sept, 2012; two years of high school Spanish by then; fund-raising; and completion of our 8-mo. training program. Orientation sessions have ended, but if you are interested, our family interviews are coming up the weekend of Oct. 15-16. Financial aid is available, especially to families in the Richmond area. Check out the video on our website - . Contact Becca at beccag28 at or Elva at elvaharding at AMIGOS mom

My organization (Center for Cultural Interchange, several volunteer exchange programs, but all are language immersion; however,we might be able to custom design an Independent Home Stay (IHP) program in the United Kingdom and add a volunteer component to it. Our current volunteer programs include: Environmental/Wildlife Conservation Projects, Women's Empowerment Projects, Community Development, Childcare/Mentorship, and Medical/Public Health. If she is under 18 years of age then our Costa Rican Wildlife conservation project might be of interest. My daughter (a sophomore)is planning on doing this next summer. Based on a private ecological reserve in the rainforests of northern Costa Rica, our animal rescue and eco-reserve volunteer project acts as a home for rescued wild animals and also is a site for ongoing conservation and community development projects that help to protect and sustain the natural beauty of the rainforest and local residents. If she is 18+ then we have many other opportunities too numerous to mention. Check our website to get more info: Let me know if I can help, Bonne Chance! Candace

Summer volunteer adventure for 16-y-o daughter

Jan 2011

I would like to send my 16 and a half year old daughter to a 3 or 4 week summer volunteer program preferably in Costa Rica or Latin America. The program I had heard good things about, Education International, no longer exists. Does anyone have any experience with Al Campo or Visions, or any other similar programs? Thanx!

My 15 yr old son went last summer with Education without Borders to Costa Rica for the month of July. The leader, Alfredo, is a great guy. as is co-leader Dani. They took 10 kids, 2 from BHS, and then a bunch from Oakland Tech and other schools. He had a great experience. They painted a clinic, planted trees in the rain forest, built eco-char stoves, stayed with host families. Their website looks very slick, but they are actually small, hard working, dedicated and struggling, like a lot of groups these days. I highly recommend them. lauren

Teen seeks summer abroad volunteer work

March 2010

My 16 year old daughter wants to do a mini Peace corps/ Amigos type of program this summer (too late to sign up for Amigos) She applied for one through school (Trek/ Build On) but was not chosen. She wants to go to a Spanish speaking country and do community service, preferably with children. She is ok with 'roughing it' but probably nothing too extreme. A friend gave us this list of organizations which provide teen programs but we have no idea if they are reputable, which are better than others, etc. I have asked her school counselor but have not heard back yet and am anxious to get this figured out as the deadlines are coming up soon. If you have heard of any of these please let me know. If you know of someone who would know the reputation of these (educational counselors? not sure) please advise. thanks! Here is the list:

  Academic Study Associates Academic Treks A Different Spain Adventures Cross Country Costa Rica Explorations EarthConnect Ecology Project International Edu-culture International Global Leadership Adventures Global Routes Global Works Lifeworks The Language travel Company Putney Student Travel The road less traveled TASIS Visions Where there be Dragons Wilderness Ventures Windsor Mountain International World Horizons International


My daughter participated in programs with two of the organizations that you list - Putney Student Travel and Where There Be Dragons. Neither was specifically a community service program, but both had elements of community service as part of the program. My daughter's orientation was more focused on learning about the culture and the economic and cultural factors behind the country's current circumstances. With Putney Student Travel she participated in their Global Awareness in Action program in Malawi, which was a three and a half-week on site program that started and ended at Yale. Other students in their group went to Rwanda and South Africa. They did an orientation before they left, then presented a program for the parents at the end that encapsulated what they learned. She had a great experience, and learned a lot. With Where There Be Dragons she went to Cambodia for 6 weeks, and really appreciated the additional time. They traveled throughout the country, learned about the Cambodia war and genocide, visited the Killing Fields and S21, visited numerous Wats, did a home stay, and did some community service. Both organizations are very well organized and careful in their hiring of group leaders, many of whom were previously in the Peace Corps in the given country. I would recommend either. You can check out the full scope of their program offerings on their web sites, and at least for WTBD, read the blogs that the students write about their experiences, which is a required part of the program.

For additional information about study abroad programs, you can also check the Berkeley International High School web site. It has a pretty comprehensive listing of programs, and links to the individual program web sites. Sandi

I took a group of high school students (FR - SR) to Costa Rica with Ecology Project International. We all had a fabulous time. At least two returned and decided to major in Biology at college. We stayed at a camp at the beach with Grad students from several companies, having some lectures during the day and patrolling the beach at night in the dark to protect Leatherback turtles, camoflage their nests, count their eggs, etc. Then we spent a few days at a super eco-lodge in the rain forest with a zip line and fabulous birding. We planted baby trees, fertilized them and hauled water from the river for several days to help them get started. At the end we had a day of river rafting. A super duper trip! kl

Last summer my 15 yr. old son went to Costa Rico with Education Without Borders International. I discovered it from a posting on this site. My son LOVED the experience: social justice, Spanish language foci; very diverse group, learned a lot, worked on organic coffee farm and in a small village with homestay. They do different trips each summer. Based in Oakland. Not fancy, very real, close group, great leaders. Check out website. Sarah

Combining Travel and Volunteering

Sept 2009

I have the travel (to other continents) bug, but I also have the volunteering bug and I'm wondering if anyone has suggestions about how to combine the two. I've looked online at a couple of websites that offer community development projects on different continents, but how much info can you get about what actually happens in these projects from a website? Does anyone have personal experience in this area or know of a reliable source of info? Any suggestion would be appreciated. Thank you!! Gotta get movin' and doin'

There are a lot of organizations that offer volunteering experiences all over the world. It's become a huge growth industry like ecotourism. A lot of them, like the ecotourism, treat the service aspect quite shallowly. Many are also very expensive because they are providing a western-style hotel holiday combined with the volunteering and/or cultural exploration and/or language learning. That's okay if that's what you want. One of the least expensive was ''A Broader View'' who managed my daughter's trip to Morocco in January. There were some issues with the accommodation, and with one of the other volunteers (who, for example, brought four suitcases of clothes and then had nowhere to put them in a tiny shared room). In general A Broader View offers very basic local standard accommodation, which may be a grass hut in some communities. Their expertise is particularly in South America, I think, and Morocco is not an easy place to arrange homestays. Their central organization was very flexible and helpful, however, and the fees and airfares you pay are deductible against US taxes. Despite the occasional hassles, my daughter absolutely loved the time she spent there working at an orphanage, and had an experience far removed from ordinary tourism. Fiona

Here are some places to check out.

Senegal (work with local villagers building fences, farming land and more) infos [at]

India (working with people still effected by the chemical disaster in Bhopal in 1984) Click on ''Ways to Help'' for info on volunteering at Sambhavna

Guatemala (working with animals) click on volunteering helper

Try contacting Peace Corps volunteers in your country(s) of interest. You can go online to Peace Corps Online and there should be a link to search Peace Corps volunteers, both old (RPCVs) and current. There is such an amazing network of RPCVs; I am also an RPCV and have hooked up travelers with volunteer op's for their trips. Good luck. RPCV

I spent around six months in Dharamsala, northern India, working as a volunteer ESL teacher in the exile Tibetan community and it was an incredibly enriching experience. The Dalai Lama came to our school a few times, too. There are a lot of Western volunteers in Dharamsala. I was there most recently in October 2008 so I can give you more advice if you are interested. Visit for more info and opportunities. Lisa Tsering lisa [at]

Try There is a section of how to be a volunteer worker for kiva in other lands. Those people learn how to make videos and send that information to others who are supporting them. DiAnn

Volunteer programs for 18-y-o who's dropped out of college?

Sept 2009

Our 18 year old son has dropped out of college (long story) and is drifting. He is not very open to our assistance and seems to be stuck in figuring out himself and how to proceed into adulthood. A counselor suggested that he really needs to go away and be independent to progress (which makes sense to us) but we don't know what alternatives are out there (don't want military/probably wouldn't go anyway). We thought of something like volunteering for 3months to a year building houses in New Orleans or even abroad (we would be willing to pay a stipend/housing costs) but other than researching on the internet, don't know how to find a program, particularly a quality program with structure that will help him grow up. Any suggestions for such a volunteer venue or anything else? (by the way he doesn't have problems working - has had summer jobs for past 3 years- but in this economy and a teenagers idea of how to find a job....) Thanks. anonymous

I found a site,, that has a huge variety of programs for volunteers. They are free, because the volunteer works to pay their room and board. One is capable of seeing all the opportunities, but has to pay a fee to join the site and access contact information. (It's a pretty low fee, nothing buget-hindering.) It isn't a scam, I have a close friend who is having the time of his life, having done multiple stays. Now he's in a backpacking hostel in Ireland. I think.

I'm 18, and have a free semester, and had I not ended up with other projects, would definitely have taken advantage of the vineyards or beautiful countryside homestays.

Good luck! Feel free to contact me, and I can pass any questions on to my friend if you'd like. S

My friend's daughter is doing a residential internship year (she's also 18) through Dynamy. See

The internship year starts out with a two week Outward Bound program and then interns are placed in volunteer positions. They live in apartments (2-6 interns per apt) with a residential coordinator assigned to the building.

The program is set up to provide opportunities for success (and a safety net to avoid failure).

The year just began but so far it has been very positive for both daughter and parents.

Another possibility is United Planet. Internationally they are affiliated with ICYE (I spent a year in Sweden with ICYE in 1971!) See It might be a bit more of a challenge but can be a great experience.

Good luck. Remember, there are many paths to adulthood! Sally

My son volunteered in New Zealand through and had a great experience. They have semester or year long programs that they run and then they also have internships where they just do the screening and match the volunteer up with an org abroad--that's what we did. I've also heard great things about Volunteers for Peace which is a shorter summer program. best wishes

Americorps. The good news - they pay him. And he can choose what job he does and where. Jenny

Volunteering In Central or South America With Teens

April 2009

Hi there Our family (includes 14 and 16 year old boys)is looking to do a 2 week volunteer project in Peru, Costa Rica or Ecuador this summer. Does anyone have any programs they could recommend? I would love to hear from you ASAP!! Thanks kindly Audrey

Check with,, Earthwatch is probably the most expensive of these but you work under a university researcher. I took about 12 high school students to Costa Rica to study leatherback sea turtles with EcologyProject and it was a fabulous experience for all of us. They also have projects in the Galapagos. Earthwatch has projects all over the world. kathryn

Reasonably-priced volunteer placements for 16-year-old

March 2009

Would like suggestions for almost 16 year old son for volunteering placements, organizations outside of Bay Area that are priced reasonably or offer financial aid. Looking for 2-3 week stints. Rustic Pathways would be an example of very expensive. Sarah

Sino Language Gateway has a great volunteer summer program for teens 15-18. Visit (copy and paste the whole URL) you will see what it is about. It offers teens to do English teaching to Chinese kids, earn as many as 80 community service credits, immerse into Chinese language and culture, and travel a bit inside of China.

The program is very reasonablly priced. It is cheaper than most other non-profit volunteer opportunities. The program is so packed that truly offers a lot to teens. Check it out or call call 1-866- WITH-SLG for more info. Anna

Summer programs for Spanish in Spain

Dec 2008

I am looking for summer programs in Spain for Spanish language for my 15 year old son.Any recommendation will be appreciated. Thank you Iman

My son has spent the past three summers with the Johns Hopkins CTY program. He has not been to their 3 week program in Spain, but the courses that he has attended have all been terrific. Here is a link to their Spanish program: Karen

Recommendation for Spanish classes for teens or adults I highly recommend Instituto Mesoamerica in west Berkeley (near University and Bonita) as a great place to learn Spanish. Arturo Sosa, the director, is a wonderful teacher. He is a native speaker from Mexico, and is full of helpful explanations to make grammar stick! Besides his language teaching skills, Arturo has lots to share about the culture and history of latin america, and of latinos in the US. He is flexible with scheduling, and the classes are fun. His website is and phone # is (510) 849-3434 Sarah R

College freshman wants to volunteer in Latin America

Nov 2008

My daughter is a college freshman, taking her 5th year of spanish (studying international relations), and currently working part time at a immigrant rights organization. She has a fantasy of spending part of her summer in some kind of volunteer capacity in Latin America. Does anybody know of good potential organization to check out, or any other tips, like on how this could be affordable... Thank you, lysa

Look in to Amigos de las Americas . They seem to have a really well organized program and they seem to prepare the teens very well for their summer away. The kids can choose from many Central and South American countries and the type of volunteer work they want to do. They spend the summer -- or at least 5 weeks-- with a family. The teen must have at least 2 years high school Spanish so your child would definitely be ready. I did the same kind of thing when I was a teenager and I came home speaking Spanish fluently. I was able to challenge 2 years of college Spanish and I ended up getting one degree in Spanish literature. We are planning on having our kids do this program. I think the volunteer work runs the gamut from working in classrooms to actually building housing. They have a very informative website. anon

HS sophomore looking for summer program in Central America

Feb 2007

I have daughter who is a sophmore at Berkeley High School. She is looking for a fun, well organized resident summer program for a couple weeks. She's in Spanish at school, so maybe a program in central america, or a program with a focus on community service. Any ideas? laura

hi, you could contact ''seeds of learning'' -- they have GREAT programs. their website is i've known their director, annie bacon, since she was a middle schooler, and she is terrific. leela

My son spent 4 weeks in costa Rica last summer with a program called Global Routes. His experience was '' life altering'' , he felt. Global Routes is both a cultural exchange program along with communithy service. He went with 18 other teens from around the country . They spent a week orienting and going to the cloud forest and volcano and then headed to a small village where he lived with a family for 2 weeks. At the village they built a commuity kitchen and worked hard. He loved his homestay and really getitng to know the Costa Rican family he lived with. His spanish improved alot over the course of the time he spent there. The last 5 days they went to the coast and went river rafting and vacationed. I highly recommend Global Routes to any teen interested in experiencing another culture with community service and language. They have been around for 30 years and REALLY know what they are doing! for more info most of the kids were between their sophmore and junior year but a few were after their junior year and 1 was before his sophmore year- to give you an idea of ages.
parent of teen

Summer abroad recommendation for 15-year-old

Feb 2007

My 15 year old would like to participate in a program abroad this summer where she can use her spanish and French language skills. She's never done this before so would like to be with a group, maybe with a family, work, volunteer etc...She is very resourceful, talented and has much to contribute. Safety is my main concern. I saw a question about AFS on teens network. What does it stand for? thanks, mona

AFS stands for the American Field Service. My parents were very involved with AFS in Southern California thirty years ago. We made lifelong friends with families in England, Austria, Germany, Italy and Belgium because of AFS.

AFS sends students for either a summer or a school year. Unless they've changed things, they do NOT take a student's language preference into account. My brothers both studied German, and spent a year in Italy and Flemish- speaking Belgium, respectively. But it opened worlds to them. One brother came back to major in Engineering and Italian.

Under the best circumstance, AFS interviews both the host families and the students, and matches them pretty well. The student may share a bedroom with a child of the same gender, and goes to school in a school where there is an AFS Club so that they meet other interesting students. The local AFS organization is supposed to organize activities and weekends away in other communities, to see more of the country.

In the worst situation, the student finds themself in a family with no experience with teens, no teen children, no interests in common, and placed in low level classes at school with no support at all. If it's not a good match, the local AFS club is supposed to help them find another home.

Two of my family's AFS students have stayed members of our family. One would have been much happier in another family, and bailed halfway through the year. A friend of mine spent her AFS summer on an island in Sweden on a farm with no one but the family to talk with. Not so great. good luck

AFS stands for American Field Service, and was actually started 90 years ago by volunteer WWI ambulance drivers. Like the Experiment in International Living it is an old and established program which had the mission of encouraging understanding between people of different cultures with the goal of making the world a better and safer place. I've included the URL below, I have no idea about how the current programs are administered, or how students are selected.

Like others who have posted here, I was an AFS student in Switzerland in the Summer of 1974. My sister went to Finland in Summer 1970. We both had wonderful experiences both with our student groups and host families. It would seem there is more control now over where you go and whether you speak the language. In the '70s you agreed to go wherever they sent you.

AFS, which stands for Amercian Fields Service, began providing opportunities for high school kids to experience other cultures after WW II in the hopes that increasing cultural understanding would promote peace. The organization is extremely well organized and offers programs in 50 different countries. The Bay Area has a very active chapter. I spent my junior year in Brazil through AFS (many years ago) and it was a life-changing experience! I hope that my now 11-year old will have a similar opportunity in a few years. Check out their website

I would highly recommend Visions Service Adventures for your daughter looking to spend the summer overseas practicing her language. My daughter went to Guadeloupe for a month last year with the program. The 25 teens worked about 6 hours a day, weekdays, volunteering in various capacities in a remote part of the islands. The people in the area spoke only french so the kids were forced to use thier language skills. The kids also spent time hiking, snorkeling, sailing etc in the afternoons and on weekends. My daughter had a fabulous time! The program was well organized and the kids well supervised. Visions offers programs in spanish speaking destinations as well. aappert

Teen Summer Travel for Spanish learning and service

Nov 2006

I have a son who will turn 16 this spring. We are interested in an abroad teen travel experience that could include language study (Spanish), community service, adventure and fun. If any of you have had a child recently complete such a program, we would be very grateful to learn more about it. He is interested in going to Spain or Latin America. Thanks! Martha

Good for you & your son that you all are considering this type of experience for him. International travel & service work are among the finest ways to for a teen to grow. I have two recommendations. The first is Amigos de las Americas, a highly regarded Latin America service/study program.

Second, my children (ages 8, 11, 13 & niece 14) and I went to Ayacucho, Peru last summer with Cross Cultural Solutions. We did service work, some Spanish study, and there were weekend travel/adventure opportunities. The volunteer group included several high school students who were on their own on the program. I think they had good experiences with CCS--we certainly did. All of us really liked living and working in Peru. CCS does a good job--I would feel confident sending my kids on their own with CCS when they are old enough.

CCS has programs in many countries; in Latin America, they are in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Peru and Brazil.

I'd be glad to answer other questions. Anne

University-sponsored Travel

Several campuses of UC offer study abroad programs open to older teens. I have the 1998 catalogs. UC Davis offered programs in Rome, Nice, London. UC Irvine offered one in Cambridge. They study literature, history, art, etc. I am sure other colleges have similar offerings. Try or Duke has several international programs for kids in 10th, 11th and 12th grades. Try or call 919/683-1725 -- Sunsol (Jan 2000)