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Sunday, March 30, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kids are seeing the world - and often, without parents

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — When Ann Kahn was growing up, her family took the same summer vacation every year — a trip to Yosemite. But things are different for her daughter, Ashley.

At 19, Ashley has already set foot on every continent — including Antarctica. And all but one of her journeys abroad was taken without her parents, on trips with other teenagers. She started when she was just 13, visiting Europe with a youth-travel organization called People to People Student Ambassadors (www.studentambassadors.org).

"It's definitely changed my life," said Ashley, who is from Green Valley, Calif., and is now a freshman at Sonoma State University. When she was younger, she thought she'd like to be a nurse someday. But now, "I'm a French major. I'd like to work in an embassy. Living and working abroad is definitely something I would like to do."

Thousands of teenagers like Ashley are seeing more far-flung corners of the world, and at younger ages, than any previous generation of Americans. Middle-schoolers hike the rain forest in Costa Rica instead of attending lakeside summer camps with color wars and marshmallow roasts. And older teenagers use the community service they did in Africa as fodder for college essays.

A recent survey of 75 tour operators that belong to the Student Youth Travel Association — www.syta.org — found that the top 10 international destinations for youth travel include China, Peru, Brazil and Australia — along with the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Greece. More than half the survey respondents identified middle school as the biggest segment for growth.

"We still have the traditional tours — an eighth-grade trip to Washington or a high-school trip to New York," said SYTA spokeswoman Debbie Gibb. "But we're seeing growth in places like China that you never would have thought of 10 or 15 years ago."

Typically these trips cost thousands of dollars. Often parents write checks for the trips, but some students raise money — especially with school-sponsored trips where kids work together on community fundraising events. (Teachers who agree to chaperone typically travel free.) Sometimes travel organizations offer scholarships for low-income students; others provide advice on finding sponsors — everything from asking local merchants for donations to sending a form letter to everyone you know with a request for $25.

When schools sponsor trips, they tend to have a major educational component, whether it's practicing French in Paris or studying evolution in the Galapagos. Summer programs "have more of the fun components — rafting, snorkeling and hiking" in addition to cultural experiences, Gibb said.

Westcoast Connection (www.westcoastconnection.com) sends 1,500 teenagers each summer on a variety of tours, from language immersion to adventure and specialty sports such as golf or snowboarding. But company spokesman Ira Solomon said, "There's definitely been a trend of more substantial summer programming. With colleges becoming so competitive, kids are trying to build their résumés." So Westcoast also offers community service, sending kids to work in day-care centers in shantytowns in Costa Rica, building houses with Habitat for Humanity in Hawaii and doing conservation work in an Alaskan rain forest.

High-school students have been taking summer courses on college campuses for decades. But Summer Discovery Pre-College Programs — www.summerfun.com — offers some of those classes for American teenagers abroad, in Britain, Spain and Italy, in addition to programs at seven U.S. campuses The programs include language immersion and SAT prep as well as specialized subjects ranging from robotics to cooking.

How do you find the right program for your teenager? Some groups have long track records and work with thousands of kids. People to People, founded in 1956, sends more than 30,000 students and teachers abroad annually. It is one of SYTA's four largest member organizations. But many smaller, less well-known organizations offer specialized programming that may be a perfect fit. If you're trying to judge a program "beyond all the fun things your kid is going to see and do," Gibb said, check the company's reputation with the Better Business Bureau, ask about the ratio of adults to students (8 to 1 is typical for eighth grade, 10 to 1 for older kids) and find out how the program helps kids get to know each other.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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