Christophe Chabaudie offers ten factors to take into account when choosing a Spanish immersion destination for teens
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. 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 U.S. high school students leaving on summer immersion experiences abroad has surged over the last ten 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 ten 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 mornings and conduct language classes in the afternoon, when rain is really pouring unlike in other countries where afternoon activities will usually follow morning classes. If yyou and your teen choose a program in Chile or Argentina, keep in mind that these countries are located in the Southern Hemisphere and July and August are their winter months. If your teen likes dry weather remember that the farther south you go in Spain, the hotter it gets. Mexico has some tropical areas in the south, but much of the country will be dry and hot during July and August. If your teen prefers to stay a bit cooler, consider Cuernavaca — the city of eternal spring.
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 U.S., 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 U.S. cities, but the lack of wide-body jet service makes the airfare more expensive than one might think. Major Mexican cities are well served from hubs like Los Angeles and Houston. If you are lucky enough to live near a major airline hub, your teen may be able to fly nonstop to their international destination. They will most likely have at least one connection and should count on losing a day when getting to their destination and when returning from their study abroad experience, no matter where they travel. Do not forget to factor this in and really count the days your teen will be on the ground enjoying a new culture and country.
Time zone factor: Mexico and Central America are located in the same time zone as most of the continental U.S. 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 six to nine 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 nonexistent. A program that can guarantee homestay families with wi-fi in their homes can be an extra comfort you may want to consider. Also, sending text messages to your teen may be far less invasive than frequent phone calls. Argentina and Spain offer cheap and reliable cell phone solutions accessible to teens, while Mexico’s cellular market is being opened up to encourage more competition, which is lowering prices.
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 some 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 parts of Central America and South America can be challenging and can prohibit 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/pickup 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 the 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 early and families start their day around 5.30 a.m. in most Central American countries; consequently, the night comes early as well. Drug wars,5 gang related violence,6 or a high level of petty crime7 are relevant factors to take into account in some Central American countries and parts of Mexico. 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 paradisial, “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. If in doubt always make sure to consult the U.S. 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, Mexico’s archaeological sites and beaches, the Guatemalan rain forest, or the wilderness of Southern Argentina. Check what the scheduled activities include and how the excursions are conducted (train, boat or bus). It is wonderful for teens to find themselves 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 precolonial past, Spain also offers a rich history dating back all the way from the prehistorical 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. In 2013, the country regained its position as third most-visited destination in the world.8
Food: Typically, the food experience is pleasant, as tasting new foods 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 of what the host family provides for lack of hygiene. In various Central American countries, buying food from a street vendor can be a hazard, as can 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 dependable travel and medical insurance, or make sure the study abroad program of your choice includes one in case of sickness or emergency. In Mexico, Central America, 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 offers the best level of public hospitals in every corner of the country,10 while Mexican public hospitals vary in quality. Regardless of your teen’s destination, travel and medical insurance are among 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, and school environment.11 The annual inspections the schools go through are a very serious matter, and the certification and its continued renewal are 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. Depending on your preferences, 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 four years due to a high inflation rate.12 The large influx of North American retirees over the last ten years in Costa Rica has meant a higher cost of living and more expensive basic services.13 People can pay in U.S. dollars in many countries of the continent, but they also may end up paying far more than they had expected. 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 complimentary 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 surprises or have to wire money 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. Fewer and fewer 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 guides when it comes to language improvement and personal experience for teens. If you don’t have much time, consider using a U.S.-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 parents should be aware of all the ten factors at the time of sending away their teens for their first and subsequent trips abroad. 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 toward some cheaper solutions or destinations, including the temptation to enroll in an immersion program somewhere in the U.S. But beyond price or glossy brochures, there is so much more to consider. Unless your teen is looking to embark on a community project or is fascinated by Mexican culture, Spain is a safe bet, but it’s expensive and a long way away.
This is an important decision for parents and their teens. 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 to improve language skills as well as boost self-confidence.
1. International Tourism Bureau. “World Tourism Trend 2011/2012.” (2011, p10) Messe Berlin GmbH http://www.itb-kongress.de/media/itbk/itbk_media/itbk_pdf/WTTR_Report_komplett_web.pdf
2. South Florida Business Journal. (Aug. 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/
5. BBC News Report. (Nov. 25, 2013) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-10681249
6. Holden, Robert H. & Villars, Rina, Contemporary Latin America: 1970 to the Present Wiley-Blackwell Publishers. (2012, p131)
7. Bergman, Marcelo, Department of Legal Studies CIDE (Mexico City) Conference paper “Rising Crime in Latin America: Organized Crime, Illegal Markets and Failing States” (May, 2010, p12) 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. Tandon, Ajay; Murray, Christopher J.L.; Lauer, Jeremy A.;& Evans, David B. “Measuring Overall Health System Performance for 191 Countries. (p15) 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/
Christophe Chabaudie (University of Oregon, MA ‘89) is the founder and executive director at Magellan Study Abroad. A participant of immersion programs during his teen years he has helped make studying abroad for teens in the U.S. a more mainstream experience for the last twelve years. His travels around the globe as group program director keep him in touch with the ever-changing state of global affairs. He has traveled many times to Central and South American destinations, as well as to Cuba on several occasions. He firmly believes that in addition to safety, quality and value are Magellan’s most significant concerns. Magellan Study Abroad offers high school study abroad scholarships during the pre-enrollment season running from October to March for all its 30-day-or-longer summer language immersion programs.