Teens on a Mission: What a Trip
For high school students, it's the ultimate field trip -- real-life lessons learned by volunteering abroad.

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008; 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."

Some of the slackers tried to track down liquor, Kusek says, but found it impossible. Not only were the students warned that they'd be sent home if caught drinking, but villagers were asked to cooperate by refusing to sell whatever homemade brews were on hand. Group leaders said there had been problems in previous years, Kusek says, but that supplies had dried up.

Of course, many of the students are serious about their commitments.

For 15-year-old Lucy Britt of Blacksburg, Va., for example, a trip to Rwanda this summer reflects her long-term concerns about genocide. Two years ago, Britt and several friends produced a movie about the genocide in Rwanda and entered it into a competition called National History Day. Last year, she entered a project about the Holocaust. Meanwhile, she has been demonstrating against genocide in Darfur and is working to form a chapter of the Anti-Genocide Coalition at her high school.

During her visit to Rwanda, she will spend a week in the capital talking with officials and genocide survivors, then head to a small village for three weeks to work on health-care projects. That portion of the trip will also include a journey to a national park to see endangered gorillas.

Britt would not have considered a trip that was merely fun. There are enough teens like her that even established exotic travel companies have had to adapt their programs in recent years. ActionQuest, for example, has been taking teens on water-based adventure trips since 1986. A few years ago, the tour organizer added a program that focuses on community service. During these journeys, teens work with disabled orphans in China or in national parks in the Galapagos or with slum kids in Thailand, to cite a few examples. Mike Meighan, one of the company's directors, points to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as one impetus for the trend toward trips that have both a purpose and a destination. "It shook everyone's sense of the state of the world," he says.

Shumlin also sees the impact of those attacks. At first, he says, parents simply worried that major European cities were targets, and wanted something rural and remote for their children. That helped develop an appetite for off-the-beaten-track journeys. The trend was further spurred, he says, as the attacks created a sense that the world needed to be better understood and needed saving.

Then, of course, there's students' desperate desire to stand out, as competition to get into the best colleges spirals ever upward.

"We all recognize that the phenomenon is on the increase," acting Harvard admissions director Marlyn McGrath says, referring to application essays that focus on such trips. "In the past several years, we began to observe it's relatively common."

Shaun Abbott of the Stanford University admissions office agrees that he has seen a "proliferation" of these types of programs and a "pattern of students from affluent backgrounds doing service in exotic locales." Stanford, he says, "tends to be sensitive that for many students, being able to study or work in a foreign country is not part of their reality." Still, he worries that such opportunities could "raise the bar of competition."

Both McGrath and Abbott emphasize that although the trips can supply grist for a good essay, they're not tickets into the Ivy League. "We try not to make it the be-all and end-all," Abbott says. "An applicant with a summer job in retail can write an essay just as compelling as the kid doing service in Senegal."

Cristan Trahey, acting director of admissions at American University, says that AU places a high priority on community service and an international perspective, so such trips suggest that a student might be a good fit at AU. On the other hand, "they don't replace strong grades and recommendations, and students can show their spirit in other ways."

Some programs, including Putney and National Geographic, have scholarship funds for children from low-income families. Even so, Edward R. Christophersen, a clinical psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri, worries that the trend is so pronounced it may create pressure on middle-class families "who have to knock themselves out to send their kids on such a trip." A candy striper at the local hospital might indeed be able to write a stellar college admissions essay about the experience. But helping subsistence farmers repair a temple in Nusa Penida, Indonesia, has a certain natural zing that's hard to match.

Then again, Christophersen adds, providing such a trip beats giving a teen an expensive car or throwing a lavish graduation party. If it opens a child's vision and increases his or her sense of compassion, the money has been well spent, he says. "Otherwise, it's just an expensive trip."

Changed Forever

Travel to distant lands for an extended period is expensive, and trips that include community service often include the added expense of project materials. Jenna Kusek's trip to Tanzania, for example, cost nearly $8,000, and money was an obstacle. In fact, her parents turned her down the first year she begged. By last spring her pleas became more sophisticated, says her mother, Jody, who takes frequent trips to Africa working on HIV/AIDS issues for the World Bank. Jenna told her parents that she needed to learn about the world outside Bethesda and reminded them they'd always told her she should make a difference in the world.

"She played into my value system," her mother says during an interview in the family's living room. Jenna, apparently listening in on the conversation, pops into the room grinning and says, "I definitely pushed all your buttons."

Jody Kusek says she realizes that the money the teens spent traveling would have gone further if donated directly to the village. But sending your teen to a village and donating to a village is not an either/or proposition, she says. She adds that she feels the money was well spent "helping to create a new person whose life now is more about awareness of others; she has been forever changed."

Even simple things opened new vistas, Jody Kusek says. "It never would have occurred to her that a village couldn't get a teacher unless you provided a place for a teacher to live. There is no question she was enriched as a human being."

Shumlin says his goal is "to get young people at a vulnerable time and give them a perspective on the world and their own country and how they live."

His personal gratification sometimes comes in surprising places. For example, he says, he recently was sitting in a cafe in Rwanda and began chatting with a young American expat, Elizabeth Davis. She was shocked and excited to learn that he was co-owner of Putney: In 2001, as a high school junior, she had taken a Putney trip to Costa Rica, her first trip abroad. During the trip, she had helped build a water tower, volunteered at a local school and decided to spend her life working in the developing world.

She subsequently spent four years at Vanderbilt University and, after graduation in 2006, headed to Rwanda. She's now with a grass-roots organization that educates orphans and street kids and works with student leaders to foster healing of the psychological scars of the genocide there.

Davis, 23, moved from Rwanda to Washington a few weeks ago and registered the organization, Amani Africa, as a charity, so that donations will be tax-deductible for U.S. citizens. She plans on living here long enough to raise funds to build a school in Rwanda, then return. Said Davis in a recent telephone interview: "Like most of my friends, I grew up in the comfortable American bubble and really had no idea what life was like for people in the developing world. That high school trip played a huge role in making me the person I am today."

She may one day run into Jenna Kusek. This summer, Kusek will be working to save money for college. But after graduating from college, she intends to return to Africa. Before her trip last summer, she had ruled out the Peace Corps, thinking the organization's two-year tours of duty seemed like forever. Now, the Peace Corps is her goal, and Africa is where she intends to volunteer.

"I'm not saying I might go back," Kusek says. "I'm saying I will."