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How international travel can help students excel

Spending time immersed in different cultures around the globe is an important part of the private-school experience. We spoke to three schools about their programs and how international travel helps students excel far beyond the classroom.

Upper Canada College, Toronto, ON.

International trips give students a chance to learn more about themselves and the contributions they can make in the world, says Thomas Babits, director of community service, clubs and CAS at Upper Canada College (UCC) in Toronto. Every year, students at UCC enrich their academic experiences by boarding a plane, whether it’s to Switzerland for an international student leadership summit on sports and wellness or to Peru to immerse themselves in international development, culture and history.

Regardless of a student’s interests, they’re likely to find a trip to accommodate them. Recent excursions include band, theatre and art trips to New York City, a model United Nations (MUN) trip to Boston and student exchanges to France, South Africa, Australia and Nunavut. For the past four years there has been a history trip to World War I battlefields in France (led by a military historian) and 16 students recently embarked on a trip to Costa Rica, where they were integrated into a local elementary school and lived in an eco-camp to learn about sustainability and the environment. “Through our international trips, we hope students gain an appreciation of the structural and systemic causes of the challenges we face locally and globally,” Babits says. “They have the opportunity to identify their own strengths and areas for growth, recognize the ethics of their choices and actions, engage with issues of global significance and develop deeper and more sustained empathy.”

Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, Okotoks, Alta.

Most students will travel internationally at least once in their high school careers at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School. Not only is there a broad range of opportunities for students to choose from, but the school offers financial assistance in an attempt to make those opportunities available to everyone, says Trevor Julian, assistant head of school and senior school principal.

During spring break, the school runs two service trips in tandem to develop global awareness and intercultural understanding—last year in Costa Rica, students engaged with an Indigenous group and helped with turtle conservation; while in Guatemala,  they helped build homes, develop roads and work in vegetable fields on a housing complex for single mothers. But it’s not just about service, Julian says. There are athletic tours, a robust MUN program, student exchanges, international speech competitions, and history and language trips with destinations that include France, Spain and Belgium. Next year’s band trip will take place in Japan, and the next conference STS students will attend as a Round Square School will be held in India, where kids from around the world will gather to discuss social, political and environmental issues.

“All of these trips are important because they foster a sense of independence and help students develop an understanding of the world, while breaking down barriers and stereotypes,” Julian says.

Shawnigan Lake School, Shawnigan Lake, BC.

Galen Loiselle, coordinator of the Duke of Edinburgh and Engagement, Development, Gratitude, Experience (EDGE, the school’s philosophical approach) programs at Shawnigan Lake School, led the school’s first service trip to Thailand back in 2005, when students helped provide humanitarian aid to a small fishing community after the Asian tsunami. Students have returned to Thailand 11 times since then, and to 11 other countries as well.

Rather than partnering with a third party, most trips involve finding a community with legitimate needs and partnering with people on the ground, he says. Last March, he led a trip to Costa Rica, where students worked with both Indigenous and refugee communities. “It’s about finding ways to build empathy by getting kids off their devices and making human connections,” Loiselle says.

EDGE is becoming the core philosophy for all of the school’s international excursions. The goal is that everything from rugby competitions to science and language trips will eventually include a cultural, educational and service component. “We want to make the academic experience more experiential and show students that everything is interrelated,” Loiselle says. “A lot of personal growth happens on international trips when students are safely pushed outside their comfort zones to connect with the outside world in a civic way that’s also useful to society.”

Originally published in the 2019 Private School Guide.

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