Prior to this summer, Stephen Rainey, 13, had never been out of the United States. In fact, the Cooper Middle School student had never been away from home for more than three days. On July 2, Rainey packed his bags and joined 45 other local middle school students for a three week, whirlwhind tour of Italy, Greece and France.
"It was very exciting," said Rainey, who listed pizza and gelato as his two favorite foods along the way.
For him, France and Greece were the highlights of the trip.
"I liked France for the culture aspect of it, and Greece because they were just really nice people," he said.
In the fall of 2005, Rainey decided to apply for the invitation-only People to People Student Ambassador program.
Rainey just returned from his European adventure a few weeks ago. Although he had to endure long travel times and security checks, Rainey said "it was definitely worth it."
Students are invited to join the program based on their grades and based on the recommendations of teachers, counselors and parents. Rainey's aunt had recommended him for the program after her daughter participated in it.
The People to People Student Ambassador programs provide international educational opportunities for students in elementary school, middle school and high school. The programs were founded by former president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 to "promote peace through understanding" between individual citizens of the world. Student Ambassador programs take place in all seven continents.
"I've been to Australia twice, and next summer I'm doing Australia, New Zealand and Fiji," said Cyndi Osborn, a Primary Delegation Leader with People to People, and a sixth grade teacher at Woodley Hills Elementary School in Alexandria. "I've done the UK and Ireland, and Spain, France and Italy, and then this summer I did the Italy, Greece, France trip. There are a lot of other trips to China and Japan, but I just haven't gotten around to those yet."
RECOMMENDED students receive postcards that invite them to an informational meeting in October.
"If you come out of that meeting not wanting to go, there is something wrong with you," said Osborn, who was a Primary Delegation Leader on Rainey's trip.
After the meeting, interested students must then sign up for an in-person interview and submit an application and deposit. In November, the students are interviewed and selected. With the occasional exception, most students are accepted into the program. In December the accepted students are invited to a social gathering where they can get to know each other, and in January, monthly meetings covering different aspects of the upcoming trip begin.
"The monthly meetings are also a time for them to bond, and we also do community service," said Osborn, who is entering into her sixth year as a Primary Delegation Leader.
This past year, Osborn also arranged a mock trip for her students.
"In May we went to the zoo, and we all took the subway down and did a scavenger hunt, just so they could learn how it is to travel with so many people," she said.
Rainey said he would definitely love to do a People to People program again, and that he would one day like to visit Japan.
"Even though half of the population there smokes, it seems like it would be the cleanest place next to here," said Stephen.
KAYLA MAY, 16, is not sure who recommended her for the People to People program, but she first started receiving invitational postcards when she was in the seventh grade. However, she never went to the information sessions because she always attended summer camp, and knew she would not be able to go on a July trip. Last fall she decided to take the plunge.
"I didn't have anything to do this summer, so I just decided to go for it," said May, who is a rising junior at Langley High School. "It was really fun –– it was like a smattering of all the different countries we went to."
Kayla went to Italy, Greece and France. She said her favorite destination was "a toss-up between Italy and Greece," but that she definitely has a strong interest in Italian culture.
"I just love it and I think it's fascinating," said Kayla. "Venice and Florence were definitely my top cities."
At each stop, the students visit the major monuments and tourist attractions, and also go on numerous walking tours. After these activities, they are given free time to roam around, shop and visit museums.
"We also do a lot of community service projects," said Osborn.
Kayla had only been out of the country once before to visit her aunt in London. She said she was surprised at how friendly everyone was.
"I thought maybe France might be a little uptight about us being Americans, since I know that relations between our countries are not that great right now, but they were really nice and everybody spoke English because over there they are required to learn another language in addition to their own," said May. "Everyone was really helpful."
For the most part, students stay in hotels, but during a portion of their stay in France, the students had the opportunity to live with a French family.
"That was really nice," said Kayla. "My home-stay mother was a really good cook."
Kayla added that she would have liked to have had more of the authentic food that she experienced during the French home-stay.
"I think they tried to Americanize some of the food for the picky eaters, and I'm not a picky eater, so I was ready to try anything," she said.
Kayla said she really liked the fact that she got to know so many other students her age from the northern Virginia area.
"I made some good friends, and we still get together," she said. "It's nice that they're in the area because in the past I went to camps and the kids were from all over, so it was harder to stay in touch after the summer was over."
EVERY SUMMER, Cyndi Osborn gets to witness first hand the impact that overseas travel has on the young students.
"It's amazing some of the growth that you see from the students," said Osborn. "Some of them have never been out of the country or away from their parents, so they don't know how to handle their things in the beginning, but by the end of the trip they are coming in on time with everything ready. They are totally responsible for waking themselves up and packing their things the whole time, and the growth is just amazing."
Osborn also has faith in the safety and educational value of the People to People programs.
"It's not just rich kids going on a trip," she said. "They get academic credit, they have to keep a journal, they have homework every month... it's a great, great organization."