We're No. 2!
When it comes to Monroe County students' participation in the Experiment in International Living (EIL), said Heather Beard, associate director of admissions for "The Experiment," as the student summer travel program is known colloquially.
"We're looking at Monroe County as a separate metropolitan region, and as such it has the second highest student participation rate after New York City," Beard said. "That was true last year as well. Monroe has always been a top sender."
This week, 22 district students will depart for a number of countries all over the world. They'll be joining 481 students -- 65 of them from New York City -- who are traveling to 20 countries this summer.
Among them will be Kara Berces, a member of the Class of 2015. She heads Sunday to Le Mans, France, where she will attend the Centre de Formation d'Apprentis to learn more about French cooking, and hopefully give a boost to her dream of one day opening a pastry shop.
"I haven't ever been out of the country before so of course I'm a little worried," said Berces, who is also a Take Stock in Children scholarship/mentorship participant.
"I'm so used to Key West, where I know where everything is, and I don't have to take the Metro anywhere. I know it's going to be challenging, but worthwhile," she said.
During her time in France, Berces will receive some language training in Paris before setting out for Le Mans. Once there, she'll live with a French host family while she attends the cooking school for three weeks. Upon completion of her courses, which she expects will be conducted in French, she'll receive a diploma during a graduation ceremony.
For Berces, who is currently an assistant baker at Croissants de France on Duval Street, this trip is the opportunity of a lifetime.
For some 80 years now, the EIL program has been sending American students to live and study all over the world, expanding their horizons, and giving them a new perspective on life in the United States.
In Monroe County, "The Experiment" has come to be closely associated with the Take Stock in Children scholarship/mentorship program, and its students make up the bulk (17) of those participating this year.
This is something that both the Take Stock administrators and EIL representatives would like to change.
"We'd love to expand the number of Monroe County students taking part, including more direct applicants who have not been nominated to the program by Take Stock," said EIL's Beard. "Ideally, we'd like every student to have a chance to take part."
It's a sentiment shared by Jeff Frost, the newest board member of the Monroe County Education Foundation.
"Up until now, we've been really focused on giving the Take Stock kids this opportunity," Frost said. "However, some of the other board members are believers in giving other students the same opportunity to take part. [The foundation] was brought in to try to help make that happen. We're planning to do a major rollout this fall to try to get more non-Take Stock kids, especially the self-paid kids."
The average cost of a trip for county students is in the neighborhood of $6,000. Currently, the money for the Take Stock kids in EIL comes from three sources. There is a direct infusion of cash from generous donors, by way of the Monroe County Education Foundation. This money is matched by funds from EIL. Most students then need to do some sort of fundraising on their own to get to the departure airport.
Obviously, something will need to happen to help students without the Take Stock resources take advantage of the opportunity. Frost is convinced it can and should be done.
"I'm a big believer in that kind of travel," said Frost, who served as the dean of a community college in the Kansas City area before moving to Key West last year. "I just had lunch with a student today who went to Botswana, and he's currently in his third year of college. He said that it changed his life, and showed him that people are people, wherever you go. Several of our board members agree that there are people who have never left the Keys, and are kind of sheltered as a result. This is something we're going to try to change."
One such Monroe County resident is Yani Morales, who is now a sophomore at Florida State University. Through EIL she visited Argentina in 2010, and credits the trip with changing her life direction.
"I had never even been on a plane before," said Morales, who is also a Take Stock student. "It was a whole new experience. I speak Spanish, but when I got there it took me a week to catch on to the language as they speak a completely different form of Spanish than what I had always been taught. After about a week, though, it was like I had been speaking it all my life."
Now taking a double major in political science and criminology, Morales said her experience left a lasting impact on her. She spent time in the capital, Buenos Aires, and also learned and taught English and pinhole photography in the smaller city of Santa Fe.
"I've recommended it to so many people I know," she said. "In fact, I only wish I could do it again. I'm looking to study abroad in my junior year of college, and I've actually been looking into becoming a group leader of the EIL program. You really dive into the culture. Once you get there, there's no going back."