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EF Educational Tours and Milton Hershey School: Teaching confidence and empathy through educational travel

In fall 2019, 27 U.S. high school students departed Pennsylvania for the Panama Canal with EF Educational Tours. These students would soon experience firsthand the power educational travel has to reveal what’s possible when you step outside your comfort zone.

Milton Hershey School (MHS), founded in 1909 by the chocolate pioneer of the same name, is a private, cost-free residential school for children from low-income families. The average family income for students enrolled at MHS during the 2018-19 school year was just less than $22,000, 15 percent below the U.S. federal poverty guidelines for a family of four.

MHS is not your typical independent school: for 2,100 kids and teens in grades pre-K through 12, MHS is a safe, stable home where they have the opportunity to unlock their full potential. Every aspect of the MHS experience fosters a love of learning and helps students build life skills for future success. Its model prepares students to become productive citizens who are engaged, find value in their work and contribute to their communities. Along the way, MHS provides everything from supervised on-campus housing to meals, clothing, health care and other services.

A key piece of MHS’ strategy to develop confident, global thinkers is its Multicultural and Global Education program, which offers MHS high school students the chance to travel internationally. Launched in 2015, the program has expanded in recent years to offer a wide range of educational travel experiences, including those focused on service learning, language, STEM, and leadership via the EF Global Leadership Summit. In 2018, the school received an International SOS Foundation Duty of Care Award for its proven ability to support and protect students who travel internationally through its Multicultural and Global Education program.

MHS students gather as they explore the ruins of Panamá Viejo, the original Panama City, on their recent tour.

“We want our students to understand their role in the world and be prepared to take action, whether they’re in kindergarten or approaching the end of high school,” said Andrew Miller, Social Studies Curriculum Supervisor and International Learning Experiences Coordinator for MHS. “It’s important for students to have experiences beyond our campus through which they can interact with new people, become more empathetic to others and further their understanding of what it means to live and succeed in the real world.”

On the fall STEM tour to Panama, MHS students learned about the importance of wetlands and how to preserve them; got an up-close look at coral reefs during a snorkeling excursion; and worked alongside biologists to learn about wetlands conservation and mangrove reforestation. On a different trip, MHS students attended the 2019 EF Global Leadership Summit, where young minds from around the world collaborated to solve global issues affecting large populations.

“Educational travel allows students to take what they’re taught in the classroom and bring it to life in new ways,” said Luke Shelley, Director of Sales for EF Educational Tours. “Encouraging them to step outside their comfort zones allows them to practice what they learn in the classroom about autonomy, leadership, and creative thinking to come up with solutions that create the largest impact.”

MHS students listen as they take an expert-led tour of Panama City’s Metropolitan Natural Park.

“The most rewarding part of my trip was making connections and new friendships, and I had the opportunity to experience things I never thought I’d do in high school. This hands-on experience helped me see that I’m truly passionate about studying science and biology in the future,” said Kennedy, an MHS student who traveled to Panama. “To other students, I say, do it. Traveling abroad may be nerve-wracking at first, but I promise it’s worth the experience. It gives you so many new perspectives on life and the world as a whole. We may think we’re educated on life beyond the U.S., but once you get firsthand experience, you’ll realize how different the world really is.”

“You’d think that a certain kind of student signs up for these experiences – ambitious, outgoing – but they always surprise me,” said Miller. “For many of our students, this is their first time traveling internationally. Every year, we see students start the trip glued to the teacher’s hip, and by the end, they’re talking to the bus driver and interacting with locals. I can’t think of a similar experience where students go through as much change in such a short period of time.”

And for MHS students, learning doesn’t stop when they return home: Tours are kept alive in several ways, including a required project through which each student articulates what they learned, how they plan to change their local community and what they’ll do for others.

“The post-trip projects are incredible,” said Ally Lynes, a former Tour Consultant for EF Educational Tours who worked closely with the school. “I went on a campus tour during one of my visits to MHS, and I was blown away when we stopped at the art gallery, which is curated annually to highlight student projects tied to the theme of that year’s educational travel opportunities. It was so powerful to see the students’ experiences brought to life in that way.”

“Travel experiences have unbelievable potential to transform students, and it’s always a very humbling experience for our faculty to witness how students have grown once they come back from an educational tour,” said Miller. “In education, change happens slowly. You have to nurture it and give students a number of experiences in the classroom to build a certain skill set, but with global travel, it’s like teaching with lightning – it’s that fast and powerful.”

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