Chicago may host some of the most innovative architecture in the country, but Arturo Simental had never noticed it. He was more focused on his studies and on track and field.

That changed after a trip to Spain this past summer.

“The architecture really fascinated me,” said Simental, a senior at Walter Payton College Prep. “It showed me I wanted to do that in college.”

The trip was made possible by a Global Navigator scholarship that helped him take part in a study-abroad program offered by the Council on International Educational Exchange.

Simental’s plan in Madrid had been merely to improve his Spanish and learn about a new culture, while hoping to discover the person he wanted to be. He found that person six time zones away.

“It really is an immersive program where you don’t stick to the same ideas that you probably had back home and you try new things,” said Simental.

He was one of 68 Illinois high-school students – including 25 from Chicago Public Schools – chosen for the pilot year of the Global Navigators program. In all, the program sent students from 43 U.S. high schools to study abroad.

Also getting the opportunity was Imani Crews, 17, a junior at Walter Payton. She wanted to connect with her father’s French culture. At Institut Catholique in Toulouse, France, Crews took grammatical and cultural classes six hours a day, five days a week, while staying with a host family.

Imani Crews, 17, went to France this past summer to learn more about her father's culture and language. | Provided

Imani Crews, 17, went to France this past summer to learn more about her father’s culture and language. | Provided

“[French] was something I wished was a part of my life daily so I wanted to incorporate more of it,” she said. “[The trip] allowed me to be more independent. I hadn’t been in a situation where I was all by myself for long periods of time.”

A lot of the learning also occurred outside of the classroom. While not fluent in French, Crews had to adjust her communication skills, often relying on hand gestures and props for everyday exchanges.

“When you get there, you’re sort of thrown into the lion’s den,” she said. “You may have the skills but there’s a certain confidence level that you need to be familiar with, in order to adjust and get out simple sentences to communicate with people.”

But the difficulties are what helped her thrive and get the most out of the experience. Outside the classroom, students are on their own, except for occasional outings set up by the Council on International Educational Exchange and a cellphone provided to students to contact their program leader. There is in-country support from the organization, with 24-hour availability to students.

“You learn to get around, you learn to be confident in your abilities and yourself as a person,” Crews said. “In that environment, you kind of learn who you are and what you have to offer the world.”

The other CPS high schools participating in the program were Lindblom Math and Science Academy, Lane Tech and Whitney Young.

The council is expanding the Global Navigator Scholarship program to more than 80 schools across the U.S. The deadline to apply for the scholarship is Feb. 1, 2016; scholarships can cover up to 100 percent of tuition, based on need. Deadline for the trip is April 15, 2016.

The major donor supporting the Global Navigator Scholarships is Sherry Long, former CEO and founder of Hampton-Brown Co., a major publisher of English as a Second Language instructional materials. Long said she wants students in the program not only to develop a global mind set, but also to bring that mindset back to their high school campuses.

As a junior in high school, she won a scholarship to study Spanish in Mexico City — an experience that had a huge impact on her life.

“It set direction for what I wanted to do in the publishing world,” she said.