OAKLAND -- The packing list includes a passport, dark clothing for nighttime turtle-watching, newly issued hiking boots and a pair of shoes that will most definitely get soaked in a river.
Ten students at Oakland's Coliseum College Prep Academy will leave the trappings of teenage life behind when they travel next week to Costa Rica on a 10-day service and travel journalism trip. No electronics outside of the airport, including cellphones. No need for mascara, sticky hair products or cologne.
"Hair gel is not an emergency thing," Amy Boyle, a teacher and trip coordinator, said during a meeting with the students and their parents. Looking straight at a group of boys, she added, "Don't bring your Axe."
The young travelers, 13 to 17 years old, attend a small public school on the corner of 66th Avenue and International Boulevard, a high-poverty East Oakland neighborhood that is plagued by violent crime. They were chosen from a pool of applicants by the AFAR Foundation, the nonprofit arm of San Francisco-based AFAR Media.
Since 2009, the organization has sent more than 100 students around the world on travel scholarships to Southeast Asia, Central America and South America. This summer, 99 students from five American cities will go.
The Oakland group has spent months learning about travel writing, ecotourism, global citizenship and their destination, Costa Rica, including the plants and animals that are found there. The next time
For 10 days, they and their guides will explore the Central American country. They'll help clean up a beach on the Pacific Coast, create a library in a rural school and, upon their return, write pieces for an AFAR travel magazine, describing the adventures they took, the food they learned to prepare and locals they interviewed.
Most of the students are fluent in Spanish, as well as English, making it possible for them to interview Costa Ricans in their native language.
Jose Lino, whose family has roots in El Salvador, said he was happy his daughter Maria was learning about another Central American country. "It's a big opportunity, not only for her but for everyone," Lino said. "It's a beautiful and great culture."
Francisco Becerra, 13, said he was most excited about the cultural life he'd encounter -- and that he also hoped to catch a glimpse of an ocelot, a nocturnal wildcat.
Ana Romero, 16, said she was hoping to become more independent.
"I want to get used to being away from home," she said. "Whenever I travel, I always have my parents right there with me."
Brenda Peña, a 17-year-old at Coliseum College Prep, went on the trip last year. For the first few days, she said, she was horribly homesick. But before long, she found herself taking in the natural wonders around her -- the birds they saw during a 5 a.m. hike, the monkeys that swung from the trees outside their hotel and the nesting sea turtles they observed at night.
Now, she said, "I see nature in a different way."
When she came home, she and her parents turned their barren backyard in East Oakland into an urban farm. There is barely room for them to move around, she said; the space has been overtaken by tomatoes, corn, squash, cucumbers, lemons, chiles and nopales, or prickly pear cacti.
Brenda also told her family that she'd changed her mind about never going away to college; she's no longer afraid.
Boyle said all the students are already leaders -- each in their own way -- but predicts that they will come back with a stronger sense of what that means. In last year's group, one of the students, who is gay, came out to his classmates upon his return to Oakland and went on to start a Gay Straight Alliance club at the school.
"There's just this poise about them that wasn't there before," Boyle said. "They're just steady. They're more aware of what they're capable of."