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TEENS : A Summer Odyssey : Students earn academic credit as they travel around the United States by bus, visiting historic sites and staying at colleges.


Tony Silberseld had never experienced anything like this before.

Here he was one bone- chilling moment in August with 11 other high school students doing what many people only dream of or wish they had the nerve to do: hurtling down the roiling, churning white-water rapids of Wyoming's Snake River in a raft.

In Silberseld's words: "It was scary." Particularly when the craft crashed through a wave so powerful that he and several of the screaming occupants were tossed into the drink.

Life jackets eliminated any fears of drowning, Silberseld recalled, but did little to protect bodies--not clothed in wet suits--from the frigid waters. "It was really freezing," Silberseld said.

For the 15-year-old sophomore at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, the adventure was just one leg of a larger odyssey: a six-week bus tour that gave some 90 teen-agers and their chaperons the opportunity to explore first-hand some of the country's best-known places: the Alamo, Yellowstone National Park, the White House, the United Nations, the New York Stock Exchange and Niagara Falls, to name a few.

But this wasn't a one-time bus tour where the high school students wolfed box lunches as they schlepped through these famous sites listening to rote tour-guide presentations.

On the contrary.

The grand tour for students, ages 14 to 19, has been departing from Encino each July for 21 years, said William Brown, operator of Glendale-based Valley Student Tours, through which the event is organized. Not only does it entertain and educate the participants, it also enhances their social maturity, instills independence, and broadens their sense of camaraderie and friendship, he said.

"It's a trip" spiritually, cerebrally and physically.

"I consider the personal and social maturity that takes place within each student the greatest benefit," said Brown, a retired Birmingham High teacher and football coach. "Not to mention the greater self-reliance, respect of others, and the opportunity to study their heritage and country."

At a cost of $3,100--including $660 in traveler's checks--some parents may consider these benefits a bargain. But there's more. The two chartered buses, equipped with stereos and restrooms, make 24-hour stopovers at many of the nation's most prestigious universities, including Harvard, Yale, Duke, Wisconsin, Michigan, Notre Dame, West Point, Florida State and Brigham Young, where the teen-agers rest up in the dorms and tour the campuses.

This adventure also offers travelers the opportunity to earn a semester's worth of academic credit in U. S. history and government, as well as social studies, Brown said.

Silberseld, who took the tour last year, said he profited most from the bonding that took place between the students during their 41 days on the road.

"All that time together created a sense of family," he said. "Being away from our families, many of us for the first time, brought us closer together. All the hugs and tears at the end of the trip made it very emotional."

"It made me feel grown up at a time when I really needed to," said Amanda Rudolph, 18, a Michigan State University freshman who added that she was influenced by her 1988 tour to select Michigan State.

She also said she fell in love for the first time on the trip. "I saw him as we boarded the bus," she said of her first heartthrob, who hailed from Arizona. "I thought from that moment, with my arrogant self, that I had to get to know him." The relationship has long since dissolved, she said, but she still cherishes those moments.

In the politically charged atmosphere of Washington, Rudolph discovered another love. She said she was so enamored of the capital that she spent an entire summer there two years later and now aspires to a career in politics. Recently, she completed a stint as a congressional page.

"I would not have done that had I not gone on the tour," Rudolph said.

Her mother, Barbara Rudolph, said that in spite of the trip's cost, she sent her older daughter, Lisa, along. It was well worth it, she said.

"It's a special gift to be able to give your child."


Organization: Valley Student Tours, P. O. Box 9325, Glendale 91226

Informational meeting: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, American Red Cross, 14717 Sherman Way, Van Nuys

Price: Free

Call: (818) 247-7717

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