By his own admission, Dan Buckland, 21, was a trying student when he arrived at London Leisure College. He'd had a bad experience of school and although he was looking forward to training to be a rugby coach at the college – which works in partnership with other London colleges including Greenwich Community College – his confidence was low. Little did he realise that a three-week trip to Zambia with the college, in which the students coached Zambian schoolchildren, would turn his life around.
"When the opportunity came up, I thought, 'Why not? It will be a challenge'," says Buckland. "Over the three weeks, we worked in around 24 government schools, introducing rugby to over 1,000 children. Some of the classes had over 100 students, most of whom didn't speak English, but they were so keen to learn and even now, I'd rather coach Africans than westerners. Every single kid reaches the best of their ability. The trip taught me I was a good coach, as well as how lucky we are over here. I managed to do well in college and I now work for the Rugby Football Union, where it's my role to develop rugby in Lewisham, however I see fit. It's the best job in the world."
Colleges throughout the UK are increasingly offering students the opportunity to go overseas, whether on cultural, educational, charitable or exchange-based trips. In the last year alone, Cornwall College has enabled performing arts students to visit Zanzibar, where they did a play about Aids awareness; animal management students to attend a seminar with David Bellamy in Corfu; beauty therapy students to visit New York; and hospitality, travel and tourism students to visit Amsterdam and Paris.
"Colleges are aware that we live in an increasingly interconnected, global world," explains Frank McLoughlin, principal of City and Islington College. "Equally important for a lot of these trips is the moral imperative. There's also a ripple effect of excitement – when some of our students recently went to China, everyone in the college wanted to know about it. It's hard to exaggerate this outcome – you have to remember that many of our students have never been abroad before."
Paul Atkins, lecturer at Warwickshire College, decided to send his class of 14 to Tanzania for 10 days last year. "They're on the International Baccalaureate course, and we felt we weren't doing enough internationally. The focus of the trip was helping to build a local school, but they also went on a safari and spent four days climbing Mount Meru," he says.
Nicola Hisom, 18, enjoyed the fundraising element, as well as the trip itself. "We did a sponsored swim, cake sales and more," she says. "When it came to the trip itself, the most memorable part was the mountain climb. It really tested our limits of endurance and taught us a lot about ourselves and others. One morning at dawn, we saw Kilimanjaro in the distance. It was really unforgettable."
Some college trips lead directly to further training and even careers. "The key reason we take the college's football squad out to Phoenix every year is to impress scouts in order to secure coveted scholarship places," explains Dave Spence, a coach at Preston College. "One ex-student impressed so much on his trip to the US that he is now a star player for Beckham's LA rivals, Chivas USA."
The students enjoy having a taste of American life too, as Josh Cartman 19, explains: "It's a surprisingly different culture and my host family were great. They even took me down the Grand Canyon in the snow."
At West Nottinghamshire College, travel and tourism students get to pick where they want to go for their annual trip. "We were given a list of criteria and we chose the Gambia," says Lucy Giles, 18. "We did so much in a week – including visiting a crocodile park, helping a school for deprived children and learning loads from the local holiday rep. We all came back realising how lucky we are, just having simple things like a range of clothes to choose from."
Some students even get to visit more than one country as part of an overseas programme. TyneMet College has just introduced a two-year programme to educate students on global pollution and climate change. Run between three schools and colleges in Norway, Italy and North Tyneside, each group of students gets to stay with local host families and attend seminars, as well as visit local areas. "We have students studying anything from psychology to biology – global warming is something that affects us all," says Anne Briffa, the lecturer heading the programme at TyneMet. "But besides learning about global warming, there are other benefits. It raises confidence, teaches an understanding of other cultures and improves social contact. Some students are already visiting each other off their own backs this summer."
Even if students want to go abroad independently, colleges are increasingly supporting them. Doncaster College, for example, recently part-funded a student to spend five weeks in Costa Rica helping to build a school.
Regardless of the purpose or the destination of trips supported by colleges, one phrase that comes up time and time again among students is "eye-opener." Becky Harris, an 18-year-old A-level student at Cornwall College who recently went to Zanzibar with her class is no exception.
"It is quite incredible how much you learn in such a short space of time," she says. "And these are lessons that we'll carry with us for life."
'It made me realise how lucky I am'
Ammar Ahmed, 18, studied A-levels in biology, chemistry, physics and English combined at John Leggott College, Scunthorpe. Last year, he was one of three students from the college to take part in the Prime Minister's Global Fellowship scheme, which involved him spending six weeks in Brazil.
"The idea of the trip was to enlighten college students about living in a global economy. We got a choice of going to Brazil, China or India, where we stayed with a host family and worked for a global organisation. It wasn't easy to get on the programme – there were almost 1,000 applicants for 100 places.
The six weeks were split up into three phases of two weeks each. The first involved getting to know the culture. We got to learn some Portuguese to help us. The next phase involved us moving in with our host family and experiencing proper Brazilian life in a way that you wouldn't as a tourist.
The last two weeks were spent doing an internship in a company. I went to Cadbury. We saw how they work and we had to analyse our experiences to learn from them. One of the things that really struck me is the diversity of the people at the highest levels. Another was the competition for jobs. One job tends to attract two to three thousand applicants.
From September, when I've finished my gap year, I'll be training to become a doctor and I feel this trip really helped. It made me feel very lucky I'm getting the opportunity at all and I also learned something from the dedication of the people in Brazil, who think nothing of travelling four or five hours to go to school. It's made me more determined than ever to make the most of the opportunities that come my way."
Malcolm Koroma, 17, is studying a BTEC National Diploma in dance. Last April, he was one of 10 dance students, two music students and four members of staff from City and Islington College to visit Beijing, as part of an arts exchange programme.
'The China trip really helped with my career plan'
"Each of the lecturers that went with us to China have different dance styles and the idea was to teach them to the Beijing students at one of the schools that performed at the Olympics. In turn, the Chinese dance students taught me and the other students. We got to witness some of the dance routines that were actually performed at the Olympics.
Those of us who wanted to go on the six-day trip had to document the reasons why. I was dying to know what China was like and was keen to experience a new country with completely different traditions. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Just seeing how their schooling is so different, and getting to play traditional Chinese games with the students, was amazing. We didn't share a language, but I was surprised how much we could communicate.
We also visited the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, as well as other cultural hotspots and markets. We got a good taste of culture and everyday life.
The dancing was the highlight, especially seeing the two completely different styles – I think the Chinese students felt that too. Another good thing to come out of the trip was meeting new people in the college. Before, I'd only really said 'Hi' to them.
I'd like to go into choreography and teaching – maybe in schools or youth clubs, and I think the China trip really helped with my career plan. Not only will it stand out on my CV, but I've learned more communication skills and learned about dancing in a completely different culture."
Dan Richards, 27, is studying the Foundation Construction Award in wood occupations at City of Bath College. Last November, he and five other students, along with two members of staff, went to the Gambia to help build a marketplace in a small village.
'I liked the idea of having an impact on people's lives. i knew it would be an experience'
"I jumped at the chance of the trip. I liked the idea of having such an impact on people's everyday lives and I knew it would be a cultural experience. All of the students and some staff got heavily involved in fundraising, including a sportathon. That was fun in itself.
The first thing that hit me when we arrived was the heat. I've lived in Australia, but this was something else. The village was in the middle of nowhere and when we were driving down the track to get there, all these people were running after us jumping on the back of the bus. It turned out to be an introduction to the local people's welcoming attitude.
The work itself was hard. I've done a lot of carpentry and labouring, but with no power to do things like mix cement, the job was no mean feat, especially in the heat. But by being resourceful and through team-building, including with the locals, we almost finished the market. In fact, working alongside the Gambians was the highlight for me – although we didn't share many language skills, carpentry is a global language. I liked the fact that we were able to show each other new ways of working too.
Another highlight for me was getting to know my fellow students. I'd been worried that, as most of them are around 18, we'd have nothing to talk about, but we got on really well. Although we were only there a week, I missed the sense of community I'd experienced as soon as I came home. Since the trip, I've been raising money for another project to help build a school in Malawi."