Study Abroad Destinations For Teens:
The Seemingly Overwhelming Selection The Spanish Speaking World Offers
By: Christophe Chabaudie
As Charles V of Spain once arrogantly put it: “The sun never sets on my empire” in describing the vast territories and countries spread across the globe which were part of his empire. With the colonies long gone, Spanish is still the official language of 20 countries and is spoken by more than 400 million people. The number of US high school students leaving on a summer immersion experience abroad has surged over the last 10 years and when it comes to immersion destinations Spanish is by far the language that offers the widest range of options. From the pampas of Argentina to the rain forest of Costa Rica, including of course the unavoidable Spain. For a prospective parent searching for the best and safest experience for their teen abroad the process can be overwhelming. What should be taken into account at the time of selecting the country and location? Here are 10 important factors to consider when choosing a summer immersion program for your teen:
Weather: A solid study abroad program has a balanced combination of classes and outdoor activities. One needs to be aware of the weather situation at each destination as it can impact the organization of a program. Most Central American countries are situated around the tropics which means that during the months of July and August it is the rainy season. Many study abroad programs will have activities and excursions in the morning and conduct language classes in the afternoon when rain is really pouring. Unlike other countries where afternoon activities will usually follow morning classes. If you choose to go south to Chile and Argentina keep in mind that these countries are located in the Southern Hemisphere and July and August are their winter months. If you like dry weather remember that the farther south you go in Spain the hotter it gets.
Airfare and accessibility: South America is a booming tourist destination and the emerging middle class in most countries has meant more passengers on existing flights (1). In this fast growing market environment airfares have jumped by up to 50% over the last five years making South American destinations, from the continental US, almost as expensive as flying to Spain. South America has become, in just a few years, one of the most profitable markets for an airline such as American Airlines (2). Central America now has better connections from most US cities, but the lack of wide-body jet service makes the airfare more expensive than one might think. If you are lucky enough to live near a major airline hub you may be able to fly non-stop to your international destination. You will most likely have at least one connection and should count on losing a day when getting to your destination and returning from your study abroad experience no matter where you travel. Do not forget to factor this in and really count the days you are on the ground enjoying a new culture and country.
Time zone and all time connection: Central America is located in the same time zone as most of the continental US. This fact definitely makes it easier for parents to reach their teen during a study abroad experience. Indeed a phone call after your workday is convenient, it is probably also the end of a busy day for your teen. Depending where you are located in North America, Spain is 6 to 9 hours ahead. While it is important for parents to stay in touch, make sure not to overwhelm your teen; let them experience “studying abroad” to the fullest. Phone and Internet connections can be altered or stopped during extreme weather conditions. Most urban areas of Chile and Argentina are perfectly covered, as well as the totality of Spain, there is still a lot to do in Central America where coverage remains spotty or non-existent. A program that can guarantee homestay families with Wi-Fi in their home can be an extra comfort you may want to consider. Also, sending text messages to your teen may be far less invasive than repetitive phone calls. Argentina and Spain offer cheap and reliable cell phone solutions accessible to teens.
Free -and independent- time: A good program keeps students busy with a healthy balance of activities, school time, and independent time. Strict rules should be attached to the so called “free time” of the day or the evening and should include a curfew time enforced by both the homestay families and the program staff. In many countries homestay families are forbidden to let the teen they host leave the home after sunset. The lack of street lighting or evening activities in Central America and parts of South America can be challenging and can forbid any "free" or independent time students could enjoy after dinner. Study abroad programs generally can’t afford, due to cost, to organize a coordinated shuttle/pick up every night. Teens usually complain about the lack of activities after dinner time as group safety in general can cause legitimate challenges for program organizers (3). Small and medium sized cities in Spain have so far been our best bet to let an American teen experience a variety of activities in the safest environment possible with the least criminality reported in the North and the Interior of the country (4).
Safety: Daylight is essential when organizing safe activities for teens. The sun is up really early and families start their day around 5.30 am in most Central American countries; consequently the night comes early as well. Drug war (5), gang related violence (6), or a high level of petty crimes (7) are relevant factors to take into account in some Central American countries. Most of this information is easily accessible online. After some basic research, you should be 100% comfortable with your selected destination. Not all countries rate the same when it comes to overall safety and tourism office websites are usually not the best way to learn about a country. Their purpose is to depict a paradise like, “impossible-to-miss” land. This can be confusing when your quest isn’t to find the best "resort" but to feel comfortable with a study abroad program run in a place you maybe haven’t had a chance to visit. In case you have a doubt always make sure to consult the US Department of State website to check safety recommendations prior to making a decision. Keep in mind that comprehensive programs will minimize the amount of on-hand cash your teen has to carry.
Outdoors and excursions: It will be difficult to match the wilderness and grandeur of the panoramas of the Panamanian jungle and the beauty of its Caribbean coastline, the Guatemalan rain forest or the wilderness of Southern Argentina. Check what your scheduled activities include and how the excursions are conducted (train, boat or bus). It is wonderful to find yourself in an unspoiled environment, but it can come at a cost (very long hours traveling on bad roads). It is also useful to check if the travel is done via public transportation or by private coach. While the Americas offer a vast jungle wilderness and a fascinating pre-colonial past Spain also offers a rich history dating back all the way to the pre-historical times to the ultramodern structure of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao or the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid. It is home to medieval cities, colorful festivals and summer celebrations, well-kept national parks as well as ornate cathedrals. The country regained for 2013 its 3rd place in the most visited destinations in the world list between the USA and China (8).
Food: Typically the food experience is pleasant as tasting new food is part of the cultural experience. In many countries sharing a dinner, even a simple one, is the greatest gift of all. What can be a bothering factor is the inability to buy food outside the host family for lack of hygiene. In various Central American countries buying food from a street vendor can be a hazard as well as drinking non-bottled water (9). It doesn’t take much to upset a stomach and spoil several days of a trip. It does take some training for the program director to make sure the participants assimilate these important rules as soon as they set foot in their destination.
Medical Access: Away from capital cities emergencies can become a real challenge for the director of the program. Purchase a dependable travel and medical insurance or make sure the study abroad program of your choice is including one in case of sickness or emergency. In Central and South America, private hospitals will offer first world equipment and services at a premium price. While the right coverage will take care of any bill or emergency evacuation, Spain will be the only country offering the best level of public hospitals in every corner of the country (10). Regardless of your teen’s destination travel and medical insurance is one of your best investments.
Quality of education and facilities: Over the last 20 years the most professional language schools have received the stamp of approval of the Instituto Cervantes. This accreditation guarantees respect of the teaching procedures, student-teacher ratio, school environment etc… (11). The annual inspections the schools go through is a very serious matter and the certification and continued renewal is never taken lightly. When a complaint is addressed to Instituto Cervantes about an accredited school the headquarters, based in Madrid, take it very seriously. Teaching Spanish is a serious business. For the purists, you may also want to consider the Spanish (accent, pronunciation) that is widely spoken in the country where the study abroad program will take place.
Overall program price: A lot of long lived clichés create many bad surprises. Prices in Argentina have soared in the last 4 years due to a high inflation rate (12). The large influx of North American retirees over the last 10 years in Costa Rica has meant a higher cost of living and more expensive basic services (13). Yes, you get to pay in US dollars in many countries of the continent but you also end up paying far more than you had expected. Remember that most Central and South American countries impose a visa fee or a departure tax, sometimes both. Make sure to check with the study abroad program organizer. When the Euro is high Spain can be one of the most expensive Spanish speaking countries of all to travel to. Require at the time of enrollment to see in writing all the program’s complementary activities and those with a charge if any. It is important to enroll your teen in a program where all costs are included. You want to avoid any unpleasant surprise or request of money wiring during a program. If you select a country popular with tourists make sure the program is primarily based away from tourists’ spots to ensure your student won’t be the victim of price gauging for souvenirs or snacks.
How do you make a final decision? Whether you enroll your teen individually in a study abroad program or with a group led by a school teacher it is always better to know what questions to ask. Less and less Spanish teachers conduct trips they organize on their own, particularly due to liability factors. Keep in mind that teachers travel during their vacation time and are not likely to lead a group on a long summer program - despite the fact that they are usually the most rewarding when it comes to language improvement and personal experience for teens. Always privilege a US based company - you'll have an easier time with customer service and having questions and concerns addressed. All of these decisions are personal matters, but we feel parents should be aware of all the 10 factors we have listed at the time of sending away their teen for their first, and subsequent trips abroad. Over the years, we’ve realized that many parents feel unprepared or overwhelmed by the number of questions they face. Without feeling any pressure, it is important to ask the right questions about the study abroad program of your choice. At a time of economic hardship, it is normal that the natural shift moves towards some cheaper solutions or destinations including the temptation to enroll in a faux-immersion program somewhere in the USA. But beyond price or glossy brochures there is so much more to consider. Unless your teen is looking to embark in a community project, Spain has an unparalleled appeal. With the experience we have acquired and the constant monitoring we do, we feel Spain has over the years exceeded our safety requirements. We haven’t reached this conclusion lightly but we know it is an important decision for the parents and their teen. A successful first study abroad experience is an open door to a lifetime of travel for anyone ready to embrace the idea of a unique summer, and ready to improve their language skills as well as boosting their self-confidence.
(1) International Tourism Bureau “World Tourism Trend 2011/2012”. Copyright ©2011 Messe Berlin GmbH http://www.itb-kongress.de/media/itbk/itbk_media/itbk_pdf/WTTR_Report_komplett_web.pdf (Page 10)
(2) South Florida Business Journal. August 12, 2013 http://www.bizjournals.com/southflorida/news/2013/08/12/latin-american-traffic-up-for-american.html
(3) United Press International (UPI). October 3, 2013. http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2013/10/03/Security-guard-in-Costa-Rica-acquitted-of-killing-US-student/UPI-56891380831728/
(4) Spanish Interior Minister. « Report of the National Police Force» (Guardia Civil) 2010 (Page 5) http://www.interior.gob.es/file/54/54476/54476.pdf
(5) BBC News Report. Nov. 25, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-10681249
(6) “Contemporary Latin America: 1970 to the Present” By Robert H. Holden & Rina Villars. Wiley-Blackwell Publishers. 2012 Edition (page 131)
(7) Marcelo Bergman Department of Legal Studies CIDE (Mexico City) Conference paper ““Rising Crime in Latin America: Organized Crime, Illegal Markets and Failing States” May, 2010 (Page 12) http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/Bergman.pdf
(8) ETN Global Travel Industry News. Jan. 17, 2014 http://www.eturbonews.com/41822/spain-re-gains-worlds-third-top-tourism-destination-ranking
(9) New York Times: “A traveler’s guide to avoiding infectious diseases” http://www.nytimes.com/health/guides/specialtopic/travelers-guide-to-avoiding-infectious-diseases/print.html
(10) “Measuring Overall Health System Performance for 191 Countries” by Ajay Tandon, Christopher JL Murray, Jeremy A Lauer, David B Evans (Page 15) http://www.who.int/healthinfo/paper30.pdf
(12) Bloomberg News. Dec. 12, 2013. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-12-12/argentine-inflation-jumped-to-26-8-fastest-since-2011.html
(13) Costa Rica Star Newspaper. Sept. 2, 2013. http://news.co.cr/cost-of-living-in-costa-rica-might-scare-foreign-retirees/26107/
A Passport To Endless Opportunities: Interview with our executive director.
What is Immersion?...: Magellan alumni explain what makes an immersion program so important.
Looking Back, Years Later: After graduating from college, a Magellan alumni looks back on her first study abroad trip.