6 Best Winter Break Programs for High School Students

by Published

We all know that winter break is a coveted time in every high school student’s life. Getting to be out of school for two or three weeks, having an excuse to stay in your pajamas all day, and get presents for whatever winter holiday you celebrate is basically the recipe for an awesome break. BUT— what if we told you there were tons of better ways to spend your time off from school? We know, it sounds impossible what with ABC Family’s The 25 Days of Christmas and all, but trust us, you’ll regret not reading further.

Three words: winter break abroad. Despite only having a few weeks, there plenty of winter break programs for high school students. It’s as convenient a time as ever, and is there a better gift than meaningful travel? Santa agrees and so do we!

Although most winter break programs – including the ones listed here – are volunteer abroad programs, there are still plenty of winter break study abroad programs for high school students willing to do a little extra digging.

1. Cambodia: Volunteer with Underprivileged Children

Cambodian woman with a basket on her back and child walking down a hill
Volunteer with children in Cambodia during your winter break abroad.

Teens can spend two to four weeks volunteering in care centers throughout Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. Winter volunteer opportunities involve planning fun and educational games for the children and bringing art, music, and other hands-on activities to the classrooms. There are worse ways to spend your alternative winter break than playing with watercolors and teaching some kids the recorder, right? Volunteers will also be involved in painting/decorating projects to spruce up the care centers, so be sure to bring clothes you don’t mind getting some color on!

The best part about this winter break program is that it comes with weekend adventures to Cambodia’s top sites, including the majestic temples of Angkor Wat, the markets of Siem Reap, and Kep’s national parks. These excursions will help give teens a much more in-depth look at Cambodian life and history, all while providing magnificent backdrops.

Why Cambodia?

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, making it a place where young high school students can make a real impact. Even though the country has a steady tourism industry, it is still battling a lot of social and political challenges that continue to delay its development. Even today, over one third of Cambodians survive on only one dollar each day. Teens have the ability to provide a lot of aid in this country, all while becoming exposed to a determined culture and surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty.

2. Fiji: Volunteer in a Village School

Pristine fijian beach with white sand and blue waters
It won’t be a total beach vacation, but you can feel good about sinking your toes in the sand after a long day volunteering in Fiji.

What is better than spending the holidays living in a traditional village tucked away on a beautiful, South Pacific island? We’ll tell you: nothing. This volunteer winter break opportunity entails up two weeks in Fiji, and it is all about spending time away from tourists’ eyes to become immersed in a traditional Fijian village. Volunteers will live on the main island of Viti Levu and spend their time working with the local children at their kindergarten and elementary school, as well as getting their inner Bob the Builder on to help with renovation work.

The name of the game in Fiji is community involvement. All students will live with local host families in the village and become immersed in all parts of the traditional island culture. Picture cooking Fijian food with your host mom, playing games with adorable and energetic kids on the beach, and spending time just hanging with local villagers after a long day’s work. Not bad, huh? High school students will even get to participate in excursions on weekends to other parts of Fiji, including a cruise around the island and visiting the pools and hot springs.

Why Fiji?

How often do you get to live in literal paradise? If you’re anything like 99 percent of us, then probably NEVER. Could you really consider passing this remote island lifestyle up for dealing with your annoying cousins yelling about whose stocking is fuller than whose? But really, Fiji is a stunning, but hurting, country, and many tourists who spend time here simply catch a boat straight to their island paradise without blinking an eye at the people around them. Volunteers are very much needed in the poorer villages and towns, where very little of the sugar trade and tourism income reach. Students have the opportunity to help with childcare, strengthen language skills, and contribute to the protection of Fiji’s natural beauty during their winter break abroad.

3. Philippines: Volunteer in Public Health

Sunset over the ocean in the Philippines
Students who choose to volunteer with public health projects abroad in the Philippines can watch the sunset over the horizon and know they made a difference that day.

Interested in pursuing a career in medicine or public healthcare? Want to get some experience before investing the energy into o-chem classes? This winter break volunteer program in the Philippines is calling your name! Based in the city of Bogo, students will spend two weeks immersed in the world of healthcare in a developing country, where they will be responsible for conducting health campaigns and outreach work. And, on top of that, students will get to explore coral islands and dive sites on weekends!

Students will focus on the fundamentals of human health in order to make effective health promotion strategies. By running health screening activities (think blood pressure, blood sugar, and body measurements), teens will then use this information to create and implement community health plans. Volunteers even get to organize community exercises, so all you yogis and other people who prioritize exercise will have something extra fun to do. If you’re even more of an extra credit type person, there is also the opportunity to work alongside local doctors and help with taking vital signs, assisting in dental procedures, and dispensing medication at the pharmacy. Basically this is like an internship embedded in a volunteer program– now that’s an alternative winter break!

Why The Philippines?

The Philippines is home to a staggering 7,000 different islands, and is a rapidly developing nation due to its natural resources. However, it is still far from where it wants to be, and poverty is still fairly rampant throughout the country. With these winter break programs, students have the opportunity to live in a destination that tourists from all over the world seek out, all while working alongside local doctors, dentists, nurses, and public health workers to really become exposed to the medical world and helping others. What better way to make a truly kind, effective, and beneficial doctor than by practicing and learning among people who need it the most?

4. Nepal: General Building Project

Stupa with prayer flags in Nepal
High school students should take advantage of the opportunity to help rebuild in Nepal following the devastating 2015 earthquake.

In 2015, Nepal suffered an earthquake that devastated the country. Tens of thousands of houses and schools were destroyed, leaving children without homes or any access to education. Spending two weeks volunteering in an area that still has entire families without houses is a great way for teens to make a tangible difference and truly impact lives during their winter break abroad.

This winter break program is the perfect way to spend a few weeks if you’re interested in construction, engineering, architecture, or community development. Volunteers will work alongside civil engineers, skilled masons, and designers to get involved in several different types of building activities, including mixing cement, digging trenches, painting, and stonework (To those kids who always did well on ceramics day in art class, now is your time to shine). All work and no play makes for cranky teenagers, so get pumped to celebrate the end of a hard day’s work with social and cultural activities, as well as a weekend trip to the first national park in Nepal.

Why Nepal?

In case you missed it, this earthquake in Nepal came in like Miley, on a wrecking ball. It demolished parts of Nepalese history that can never be rebuilt, parts that the entire country depended on to support the local economy. The country is seriously struggling to put itself back together, and truly needs all the support it can get. If you love people, were always good with your hands, and woodshop class is the only thing that keeps you going (we know teen angst when we see it), this winter break program in Nepal is perfect for you!

5. Thailand: Marine Conservation

Ko Phi Phi Don, Thailand at sunset
Take pride in keeping Thailand’s beaches and marine life safe working on conservation projects this winter.

Did you always dream of being a dolphin or whale trainer as a kid? Did you then watch Free Willy and vow to destroy anyone that hurts precious marine life? (What type of monster doesn’t?) Volunteering in marine conservation in a beautiful place like Thailand is the perfect opportunity to help wildlife in need and really make a splash during your winter break!

Students volunteering in Thailand will be surrounded by so much tropical paradise that they won’t know what to do with themselves. After becoming an internationally-recognized PADI Open Water Diver (have fun putting that on your college application), you will then descend into Thailand’s crystal-clear underwater world. Have fun making friends with all the local turtles, tropical fish, sea urchins, and coral reefs. In between pretending you’re Ariel or Dory (depending on the day), you will be responsible for fish and wildlife surveys, reef checks, and other underwater data collection. Winter programs for high school students sound sooo much better when you add “underwater” to it, doesn’t it?

Teens will also be involved in some “above water” work, including building playgrounds, creating local parks, beach clean-ups, and reforestation projects. If all of this fun in the sun sounds too good to be true, don’t forget about the opportunities for kayaking, swimming, hiking, visiting local towns and markets, and inhaling delicious Thai cuisine. Doing this is 100 percent better than your family’s tradition of ordering Thai takeout and watching It’s a Wonderful Life.

Why Thailand?

Beyond the fact that Thailand is a middle-income country with huge class gaps and the need for volunteer work, this small country offers a very unique experience to teens. Unlike the majority of Asia, Thailand was never colonized, and its personal culture and deeply rooted Buddhism are major parts of the country. Students spending time here will get to see beneath the tourist line, and become involved in a world where ancient beliefs and a respect for nature rule the culture. The pristine beaches and magnificent temples don’t make it too hard to be drawn to this country, but what teenagers will enjoy the most is being able to make a difference while becoming immersed in an almost untouched culture.

6. Sri Lanka: Volunteer with Children

Countryside in Sri Lanka
This winter, get out of the snow and the cold and volunteer with children in rural Sri Lanka instead.

Do you love children but don’t want to actually be responsible for one for at least 50 more years? That’s ok, because winter break programs for high school students like this one in Sri Lanka exist! Come volunteer in Sri Lanka for a few weeks at all types of childcare facilities: kindergartens, orphanages, care centers, or special needs homes that are all looking for young volunteers. Beyond the satisfaction of making a difference, the reward also includes visiting ancient cities, Dutch forts, and famed beaches. Sign us up!

You could participate in anything and everything when it comes to childcare in Sri Lanka. One day you could be helping a child learn their alphabet, then the next day you’re organizing sports teams and teaching arts and crafts on the sidelines (If your teachers back home always commented on your report cards that you “have trouble staying on task,” joke will be on them soon!). Students will also be involved in community projects like painting classrooms and working on community centers, which create lasting impacts and friendships that you’ll treasure forever.

Why Sri Lanka?

Unlike the lack of colonization we just talked about in Thailand, Sri Lanka has a somewhat painful history of being run by the Dutch, British, and Portuguese, only gaining its independence as recently as 1948. It has made great strides in boosting its economy and stabilizing its government, but factors like the tsunami in 2004 and the continued gap in income equality are still hurting the country. Volunteers can make a big difference even in a country that is now considered a “must-visit,” especially with its children and special needs community members.

Pack your coats! Er, swimsuits?!

As you can see, there are so many better ways to spend your winter break abroad than at home having a cookie eating competition with your brother and seeing who can quote Home Alone the most. Be sure to read reviews for winter break programs for high school students, scour interviews, and talk to program alumni to really get the skinny on which winter break program is the one that’s right for you. Most importantly, don’t forget to send beach selfies and sunset pics to all of your jealous family and friends back home!

What are you waiting for? With so many opportunities to escape the cold and the snow, winter break study abroad programs seem like a no-brainer. Ditch the earmuffs and grab your flippers, it’s time to get going!

Find your perfect teen winter break program with MyGoAbroad.

Topic:  Top Destinations