Take a sketchpad and go on a weekend excursion to Orvieto, Assisi, Perugia, and Pompeii. Ski Mount Cook towering over glaciers on the south island of New Zealand after snorkeling beside a seaplane on the Great Barrier Reef. Join in the Thai royal family's elephant conservation work after a bamboo raft trip, or take the ''teleferique" up Mont Blanc in France, then cycle through the Netherlands, and go punting on the riverbanks in Cambridge and Oxford. Investigate Eastern European Jewish heritage in Prague, Krakow, and Budapest, or help build a mud brick classroom at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, with a side trip to the Serengeti Plains. Keep a journal on the remote Aeolian island of Stromboli, or work beside the Blackfeet Indians of northwest Montana on a 1.5 million acre reservation abutting Glacier National Park.
The catch? You have to be a teenager again.
''We see students grow more in four or five weeks than they grow in an entire year in school," says Peter Shumlin, codirector with his brother, Jeff, of Putney Student Travel, the company that offers all the trips listed above in one form or another. Putney Student Travel has been making cultural, language, and community service trips available to high school students for 54 years.
''Our business is changing lives," Shumlin says. ''That's what makes it so rewarding. It's why we've done it for so long."
Summer is no longer the break between school years. For many teenagers, it is the time to pursue the educational opportunity they may not meet again in a lifetime.
''Our work is mission driven," says Chris Yager, founder and director of Where There Be Dragons, an education travel company specializing in Asia and South America. ''We believe in turning the mirror on students. It may be temporarily uncomfortable for students to live in a dirt floor hut with no running water or electricity, but it transforms the student's perspective. We hold a light up to the world and let them have a good look around."
Where There Be Dragons arranges for students to camp beside the Great Wall of China, sip tea with Tibetan nomads, or live with families on reed islands on Lake Titicaca. Yager is also interested in ''gap year" students, college-bound high school graduates taking a year off before college.
''Some of the elite colleges are encouraging gap-year programs," Yager says. ''In fact, some schools now require that a student take a break between high school and college. It's a chance for a student to broaden his or her horizons. The British education system has recognized the need for a gap year for a long time."
''These summer experiences have become a place where adolescents find their voices, their sense of independence, and learn to live differently from the way they do at home," Shumlin says. ''Their eyes are opened to poverty, emerging governments, living simply and without material goods. Twenty years ago, it was summer camp and maybe a summer job. But now thousands of students are using summer as a chance to gain a significant learning experience."
Mike Cottingham of Wilderness Ventures out of Jackson, Wyo., holds the same goal for students but goes about it through outdoor experiences. In 33 years of running an educational travel business, he has put nearly 5,000 students on the peaks of the Grand Tetons and Mount Rainier.
''We have three general goals for students," Cottingham says. ''To learn to live in a community, to learn the elements of good stewardship and conservation of our land, and to become leaders among their peers. And of course, we give them ample outdoor skills instruction. That's essential."
Bobby Musiker, director of Musiker Summer Discovery programs of Roslyn, N.Y., says, ''We have thousands of students experiencing new things every summer. We send students to Maine to work with sled dogs. We do community service, language programs, a variety of things. We never just observe a river if we can help it. We kayak it, swim in it, study it. We have campus-based programs at UCLA, University of Vermont, and Georgetown, but the programs insist students get out of their chairs to become active learners."
Campus-based programs, called summer enrichment programs and offered by most student travel companies, allow teenagers to come together for four or five weeks in a college environment. While taking classes that emphasize the experiential rather than rote learning, these programs let students sample it will be like to have a roommate, attend classes voluntarily, and participate on a college campus.
''Plenty of kids are apprehensive about going off to college," says Musiker, ''but after they have gone through a campus-based program, they feel confident they can handle what's in front of them. You can actually see the difference in their attitude and demeanor. It's a huge worry off their shoulders."
Colleges, in turn, request more and more from incoming students.
''I'll be honest," says Shumlin. ''Many of the experiences we share with students in the summer appear as college entrance essays on the students' applications. But that's excellent. That means the experiences we give them in the summer mean something. Sometimes it's the most meaningful experience they have had to that point in their lives."
Usually, trips are led by graduate students or young teachers eager to share their passions. Many alumni return to lead the trips they once went on as students. It creates a vast network of contacts and individuals who count their school travel as a high point, and often a life-changing passage.
''Sometimes articles on our trips appear," says Yager ''and they concentrate on the college admissions angle. That's missing the point. The people who work with me continue doing this kind of job because it's important. If we are going to understand the rest of the world, and if the world is going to understand us, then young Americans have to go and experience foreign cultures. That's how I want to spend my summers and that's the kind of student we want on our trips."
Joe Monninger is a freelance writer in New Hampshire.