"There are no foreign lands," Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote. "It is the traveler only who is foreign."
With that quote in mind, some 20 county high school students this summer embarked upon the greatest adventures of their young lives as part of the Experiment in International Living (EIL) project. The students traveled to countries all over the world, and returned forever changed from the three- to six-week experience.
"Kids who go on these EIL trips come back with their self-confidence overflowing," Monroe County Education Foundation President John Padget told The Citizen back in January. "To a person, they feel liberated that they could travel alone. These are experiences that will stay with them for the rest of their lives."
Among the students taking part in EIL this year were three who seem to agree with Padget's statement.
Key West High School 11th-graders Jack Willis and Araley Castellanos-Cruz, and 12th-grader Shayne Alongi, all consider themselves fortunate to have been accepted into the program, which has a scholarship component for low-income families.
Each returning participant is required to submit an essay detailing their adventures and explaining what they learned on their trips.
"From the variation in natural beauty between the Caribbean and the Antarctic, to the novel Chilean relationship to food, I gained international perspective," wrote Alongi, who visited Chile. "Finally, my new understanding of family and acceptance has made me grow, while watching the world shrink. Since soccer is a cultural phenomenon, every Sunday we would go to my host family's beach house to watch soccer games with the whole family over a big dinner. Events like these made me wish that we would spend more time together with our families in America. Such priorities in different parts of the world make us re-evaluate our own choices."
Jack Willis spent his summer close by, in Argentina.
"Most importantly ... my views of acceptance, understanding and family are no longer limited to one American hemisphere," Willis wrote.
"Ranging from the breathtaking view of the Andes, to the turbulent white water that I had the opportunity to tame as I rafted, the trip changed my perspective of nature's beauty that I will never in a million years forget.
"This trip truly changed my life. It honestly helped me build my level of confidence and made me forget the little things in life. I came back to the United States with a broad view of acceptance, understanding, and family."
Araley Castellanos-Cruz crossed the pond and traveled throughout France and Italy.
"This summer has opened my eyes to what is out there and to how different and yet similar all our lives really are," she wrote.
Those experiences will be shared with each other and other students interested in participating in the popular program next year, at a "Welcome Back" event at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 26 in the Buttonwood Room of the DoubleTree Resort, 3990 S. Roosevelt Blvd.
Recruitment sessions for next year's program will be held the following day. Representatives of EIL will visit Key West High School from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m.; Key West Collegiate Academy from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.; and Marathon Middle High School from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. They'll also visit Coral Shores High School, in Tavernier, at 9:30 a.m. Sept. 30.
For more information, call Kim DeRego at 802-258-3324, or visit http://www.experimentinternational.org/.