Abroad At Wilson



Twelve years ago, the trips abroad that Wilson offered looked strikingly different.  The options were few, mostly involving train rides through Europe and tours of sites booked through a pricy touring company.

This changed in 2005 when an exchange student went home to Falconara, Italy and raved about Wilson to her English class. The next year 20 of her classmates at Liceo L. Cambi, an hour and a half train ride from Rome, arrived at Wilson and an exchange between the schools was born. Last spring break, 21 Wilson students went on the trip. Next October, Italian students will come back here.

The first of its kind, the exchange initially brought a burst of excitement to Wilson. Lots of students wanted to host and signed up. Recently fewer students have been expressing interest. This year is the first in 11 years that Wilson has not done a trip to Italy. Academy Assistant Tina Kaneen links this to the increasing number of trips available. “I think the novelty has just worn off,” she says. Still, she is currently trying to recruit students from choir and the Humanities Arts and Media (HAM) academy for a trip next spring break.

Two years after the first trip, the Wilson administration received an email from two high school teachers in Montreuil, just south of Paris, France. They were leading a study of the American Civil Rights movement through the writings of Martin Luther King Jr and Thurgood Marshall. They wrote that it was their dream to visit to Washington DC with their students. “There was no way we could pass this up,” Kaneen recalls. Wilson has been participating in an exchange with Lycée Jean Jaures High School ever since. This year we hosted 15 French students, who stayed in DC for 10 days back in February. Next November, up to 12 Wilson students who take French will visit their school.

Wilson also offers trips dedicated to language immersion and service learning. The Spanish department has organized three of these trips in the past nine years. Students stayed with host families and volunteered in developing regions of Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. These trips are half the price of those charged by tour companies like EF tours.

This model can make it more difficult to find a host country and students who are down to ‘rough it’. “They don’t want to have to take showers with cups, they don’t want to not have electricity. It’s not a comfortable tourist experience, but it’s living with real families and being engaged in their lives,” said Amy Wopat, head of the Spanish Language Department.

Still, travelling is prohibitively expensive for some students. Between airfare, housing, and local transportation, a weeklong trip can cost thousands of dollars, and DCPS does not supply any funds. The exchange trip to France is one of the lower cost trips, but the down payment is still $1,650. Less visible expenses like visas, passports, and immunizations rack up the cost even more.

Technically, any Wilson student who wants to go on a school trip abroad can.  At least one full and two partial scholarships are offered per trip. The PTSO, Wilson’s International Studies Program (WISP), and even corporate sponsors (in the case of the French trips) have been generous in providing this financial assistance. The Academy of Athletic Achievement (AAA) did enough fundraising that the cost of every student’s trip to Italy was covered.

But, schedules also manage to get in the way for many kids. Sports practices, AP classes, clubs, and college applications don’t always allow the free time necessary for a 10-day trip abroad. There is not always enough time off from school for the journey to be worthwhile. “I’d love to stay for two weeks but it’s not realistic. We usually stay for eight to 10 days,” Wopat explains. The new PARCC testing made scheduling trips even more challenging this year.

Despite the complications, international trips have the potential to enrich students’ lives. They are able to see an alternate high school experience, learning that there is a world outside of Wilson. Some make lasting friendships. After participating in the exchange, one Wilson student found a summer job in Italy and lived there with her host “sibling” again. Visiting Italian students enjoyed our Spirit Week tradition so much that they brought it to their school. Ultimately, traveling internationally as a high schooler isn’t just about the culture – it’s about having experiences and making bonds that can last a lifetime. •