Quality Summer Programs: From Safety to Leadership, How to Recommend One Over Another

By Katherine Dayton
Director of VISIONS Service Adventures

As summer approaches, many guidance counselors are asked to steer students towards quality summer programs that not only align with particular interests, but also with college admission goals. While some kids may be looking for an academic focus, others may be looking for experiential opportunities beyond the classroom, from wilderness and sleep-away camps to international teen tours and community service programs.

When it comes to travel based summer programs, there is no governing body that sets standards; literally anyone can start an international program and take kids overseas. That means it is important to do some legwork to make sure the programs you recommend to your students are safe, reputable, and high quality.Director of VISIONS Service Adventures 

Delving beyond the glossy brochures and spiffy websites, here are some important questions to ask:

Longevity: How long has the program been around? If it’s new, how long have directors and core staff members been working in this field? International summer programs are complex, and a proven work history can be a sign that they have the experience they need to provide safe, high quality programs.

Leadership: How are leaders recruited and chosen, and what are the systems for checks and balances in the field? How are they trained? What’s the minimum age? And last, but certainly not least, what’s the leader ratio? For travel programs, leaders should be 21 and over, and a one to six leader to student ratio should be the minimum. Safety, security and supervision directly correspond to the number of leaders and quality of leaders. 

Health & Safety: How are medical emergencies handled from beginning to end? Does the program require emergency evacuation insurance for participants? This is something you hope is never needed, but if it is, it can be critical. Also, does the organization have liability insurance and at a reasonable level relative to the amount of participants in the field? If they haven't thought about these things and don’t have some of these important back-end elements in place, what else have they not thought about? These can be signs that an organization may not have its act together or the resources to run a quality program.

Groups of Friends: Ask if programs have limits on how many friends can come together. If a goal is to expand a student’s comfort zone and horizons, getting them to break away from their core group is an important step for maximizing the power of the experience.

Focus: Does the organization have a core focus? If your students have a certain goal in mind, make sure that goal is at the heart of the program’s focus. For instance, some programs may do some service projects, but the projects are peripheral to another core program focus, such as touring and adventure. This won’t be as rewarding for the kids who really want to be involved in meaningful service work. 

Technology Free: Academic programs may allow technology in an appropriate fashion, but for cultural immersion or experiential programs, it’s important to ask why an organization would allow technology if the goal is for kids to be awakened to their surroundings. Is there enough structured programming? If immersion in cultures or language study is important, find a program where technology is stripped out.

Financial Aid: As you work with kids from all economic backgrounds, it’s important to recommend programs that aren't only available to a select few. Also, organizations that provide financial aid to attend their programs demonstrate a strong belief in what they want to do, and feel passionate about offering it to kids who can't pay full price. 

Check Reviews & References: Recommend that students check online reviews before signing on with a program. Have them ask for alumni references to learn more about the quality of the experience. 

Katherine Dayton is the Director of VISIONS Service Adventures, an organization that runs high quality international community service programs for high school and middle school students. Learn more at

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