International Opinion

High School Global Travel Programs: Increasing Access and Impact

By Rebecca Leblond — September 18, 2018 9 min read
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Editor’s Note: Rebecca LeBlond, Director, Global Citizens Program, Democracy Prep Public Schools, shares the reasons that high school study abroad can be beneficial for all students and how to make it happen.

In the winter and spring of 2018, nearly 400 students from across the seven high schools in the Democracy Prep Public Schools network traveled abroad on week-long, educator-led programs to examine global challenges through real-world experience. Destinations of the 21 distinct groups included Ecuador, France, Italy, South Africa, South Korea, and Spain. The Global Citizens Program at Democracy Prep is designed to ensure that students gain firsthand appreciation of the fact that there is no corner of the world they cannot access or in which they cannot be successful. At the same time, the program seeks to transform the idea of what is possible for educational global travel experiences in public schools. Through strategic budgeting, Democracy Prep schools are able to fund over 85 percent of the total program costs for students.

Since the first Democracy Prep high school students traveled to London in 2010, we have found, again and again, that these opportunities present both quantitative and qualitative benefits. Our hope is that, by sharing some of the lessons learned through the growth of the Global Citizens Program, others may find some inspiration to advance similar opportunities in their own schools or support the continued expansion of opportunities for high school students to participate in educational global travel, particularly for those who are underrepresented in the wider study abroad field.

Benefits of Short-Term Global Travel Programs

1. College Applications and Acceptances
Democracy Prep schools place a significant emphasis on ensuring that all students are prepared for success in college. Our school culture demonstrates this emphasis in myriad ways, including with a focus on preparation to apply to college. In order to participate in a global travel program, students are required to submit an application, which includes questions loosely modeled after those found on The Common Application.

These prompts provide the opportunity for students to tell their story, demonstrate why they are the right fit for the program, what they will bring to the table, and how they will complement and enhance the overall group experience. Additionally, this application process ensures that students are not selected based solely on academic success. While 20 percent of our high school students travel abroad each year, by the time they graduate, more than 60 percent will have had at least one abroad experience. This is significant not only because 75% of Democracy Prep high school students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, but it also demonstrates that the opportunities are not solely limited to those who either can pay to participate or to those with the highest grades but also because of the impact these experience(s) may have on college acceptance rates.

Among 2018 seniors, there was a positive correlation between traveling abroad and the average number of acceptances per college application that students submitted. The average college acceptance rate was 38 percent for those who did not travel abroad versus 48 percent for those who did. Because there is a wide range in the total number of colleges a student applies to, simply counting the number of acceptances would not paint a clear enough picture as to whether travel abroad increases acceptance rates. When accounting for the range in total applications, we found that students who traveled abroad had, on average, a 10-percent higher average acceptance rate than their peers who did not travel abroad.

2. Global Mindedness
In 2018, Democracy Prep’s Global Citizens Program implemented a brief assessment to measure what, if any, impact these short-term global travel experiences have on students’ global mindedness or global competence. In order to do so, we drew on questions from the 2018 OECD PISA global competence framework, specifically from the global mindedness construct. For each of the four statements below, students were asked to select one response (“strongly disagree,” “disagree,” “agree,” or “strongly agree”).

    1. I think of myself as a citizen of the world.
    2. I think my behavior can impact people in other countries.
    3. I can do something about the problems of the world.
    4. Looking after the global environment is important to me.

The gathered results demonstrated that students who traveled abroad not only predominantly agreed with the statements but that there was growth across all questions from before departure to after their return. On a four point scale, the average agreement before traveling was 3.1. Post-travel, the average increased to 3.4. Interestingly, the question that averaged the lowest overall agreement was ‘c': “I can do something about the problems of the world,” defined by PISA as the “global self-efficacy” facet of global mindedness. We do not have a clear sense of why this was the case. Thus, in future assessments we may solicit more feedback on this particular question to gain insight into a potential answer and opportunities to address this.

3. Social Capital
While college acceptance percentages and global mindedness currently allow for some level of quantitative analysis, there are also qualitative benefits of cross-cultural experience that are less tangible but by no means less significant. As an article in The Atlantic examining the impact travel can have on creativity points out, “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.”

At Democracy Prep, we believe deeply in the benefit of global travel for the impact it has on the current and future confidence, success, career readiness, and overall social capital and well-being of our students and alumni. As first-generation college students, students of color, or students of financial need, the fact that 60 percent of Democracy Prep graduates will arrive on their college or university campus having already had at least one experience abroad cannot be underestimated. To be able to describe seeing the statue of David at the Accademia in Florence in an Intro to Art History course, for example, or to leverage their experience of service learning in Ecuador in a seminar or as part of a student club, may very well serve as a shared experience and to dispel preconceived notions about who does and does not have high school travel experience.

How to Make It Happen

How then can opportunities for all high school students, including and especially those who are traditionally underrepresented as study abroad participants, both be increased and made to be more impactful? What can other schools, districts, and educational leaders do in pursuit of further equity of opportunity? Below are some ideas and suggestions for increasing access to global travel as well as the impact for high school students. These are by no means exhaustive but include some of the lessons learned as Democracy Prep’s Global Citizens Program embarks on its tenth year of offering global travel opportunities to every high school student.

Teachers and some administrators may not be accustomed to discussing availability of school funds or reviewing budgets, but it most certainly can’t hurt to ask. Just $3,000-$5,000 can go a long way in making travel opportunities possible for more students. Many high schools offer programs for any student whose family can afford to pay to participate. While some scholarships and financial aid may be available for many students, costs can still be prohibitive.

By offsetting the cost of participation to reduce the overall cost for some participants, schools may have a more balanced representation of participants and a greater impact as a result. Additionally, when pursuing possibilities, remember that traditional program providers offer convenience at a cost. Explore options to coordinate some arrangements directly, such as a service-learning partnership with a local organization, a half day spent visiting a host school, enjoying some meals that are not pre-arranged, and using local transportation (e.g., the metro in Rome). These serve the dual purpose of being both cost effective and allowing students to have a more authentic, local experience.

2. Require deliverables. Just as participation based on the ability to pay one’s way does not inherently or effectively contribute to an impactful group experience, limiting the program solely to direct experiences on the ground does not maximize the potential takeaways. Once accepted into a travel program at Democracy Prep, students are required to attend three to five (and often more) pre-departure workshops, which include a review of and reflection on aspects of historical, social, political, and cultural significance. In-country, daily reflections both in shared group format and in the form of journaling help solidify students’ experiences, knowledge gained, and skills developed. Upon their return, students frequently present to the wider school community or to elementary or middle school peers, reference their experiences in college application essays and interviews, and speak at enrollment and back-to-school nights for new and returning families.

3. Educator involvement. An essential component of the Global Citizens Program is the faculty and staff who serve as program leaders and chaperones with an average educator-to-student ratio of 1:5 on most programs. This allows for valuable small-group experiences and leverages the knowledge that faculty and staff have of the students, as well as their expertise as educators. In advance of departure, chaperones participate in a training that includes content about logistics, health, and safety, as well as scenario-based training exercises and an exploration of cross-cultural differences, orientation, and communication practices. In addition, faculty and staff each take on a specifically designated role (e.g., program lead, administrator, documentarian, facilitator, etc.) to ensure clarity around roles and responsibilities and maximize effectiveness.

When people think about study abroad, many likely envision an undergraduate student embarking on a traditional semester-long sojourn to a foreign institution of higher education. But as the understanding of what it means to be globally competent evolves, so to does the definition of a global experience. Similarly, as research and information continues to point to the value and importance of possessing a global mindset and intercultural skills for success, the significance and value of an experience that contributes to developing those also grows. Thus, we anticipate the expansion of opportunities to embark on a global education experience, particularly for high school students, K-12, and traditionally underrepresented students, and we welcome and encourage more schools and organizations to join us.

Connect with Democracy Prep, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photos by Democracy Prep faculty and staff and used with permission.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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