It’s a frequent practice for college students to spend a quarter or semester studying abroad. However, it is becoming more common for high schoolers to do this. Is this a good idea? What are the cons with studying abroad for a high schoolers?
Parents send their child to study abroad because they believe there are many life-altering, positive benefits. Yet studying abroad can be just as much negative as positive, but is usually a combination of both. There is much for parents to consider before sending their high school student abroad.
If life skills, experience, and a growing up period is the goal, can a year abroad in the high school age range really do this? Let’s take a look at some of the issues.
Life Skills Learned as an Exchange Student
Living abroad even for a semester is going to be quite overwhelming for your child. It is critical for parents to discuss the ramifications in detail with their child and make an informed decision together. Yet he or she will learn life skills 2.0!
- Time management
- Cooperation/Working with others
- Problem solving… are the major areas enhanced during this time
Yet, truly one of the most important skills ‘for life’ that our daughter learned on her year abroad in Germany is grit. Grit is perseverance, determination, resilience, courage, and passion all bundled into a character force that will see you through disappointment, shock, setback, and unease.
And yes, your child will experience ‘unease’ even during the best abroad experience, predominantly because you won’t be there.
For probably the first time in his/her life, your child will have to make daily decisions (food, commuting, communication…) , as well as more long term ones (schooling, travel plans, healthcare, relationship issues…) on their own.
Yes, depending on the exchange situation or program you use, there may be mentor adults or points of contact for support for your child, but in actuality, your child will be in the position of making 100s of minuscule and monumental decisions independent of any adult help.
Having to navigate cultural and/or language differences (dare I say, ‘barriers’?) will certainly build grit in your child no matter how positive the experience is deemed at conclusion.
Our daughter would unequivocally tell you her year abroad in Germany was worth it, but that doesn’t mean it was without problems, truly serious problems.
Alexis, our daughter who had just turned 17, had several uncomfortable ‘moments’ in Germany. But what she learned from it was invaluable.
The first few weeks was spent at a language camp her program required, dorm-style. She struggled fitting in; several cliques formed and she didn’t quite find her place in any.
However, that resolved as she worked on communication skills and let time pass. Eventually she found her tribe of guys and gals she came to call friends over the next year, a few of whom she still talks to years later.
However, the more serious issue presented itself when she moved to live with her host family. Having a proper host family is probably the most significant need of a high school exchange student, and unfortunately, Lexi’s original living situation proved to be an unsafe environment.
Like all exchange students, she found herself in a home unfamiliar, yet hers was filled with screaming matches, passive-aggressive undertones, and outright rude behavior. After communication didn’t work between herself and particularly the host mom, she enlisted our help.
Of course, we were limited in what we could do across an ocean but as her parents, we tried our best to support our child, reaching out to help her resolve the problems. Surely, if we demonstrated calm, respectful communication, we’d be able to fix this, right?
Needless to say, our attempts backfired and caused more aggressive language towards our daughter.
She sought the help of a program mediator, a local woman who’d worked with the organization for years supporting the host families and exchange students with ‘issues’. She was baffled by the host families actions; in her many years involving abroad situations, she’d never experienced anything like it.
Thus after her several unsuccessful attempts to help, she recommended Lexi be moved to a new host family (a last ditch action within the exchange world). This made the current situation even more volatile for our daughter because she was expected to remain with the original family until a new family could be secured!
Fortunately, her dad, Mat, was traveling within Germany around this time and was able to spend the extra time and money to get to our daughter and she stayed at the hotel with him while in limbo.
All of this is to tell you that DESPITE the months of very stressful living conditions during this abroad time, by Alexis’s own account (and ours) she STILL had a successful exchange year, one she’d not take back for anything!
Resume Boosts from Abroad Year
Another reason often sung for sending your child abroad is that it will boost their resume, particularly in connection with college applications and future careers. This is quite true!
Living Abroad Boosts College Apps
Colleges know that students who go abroad are more prepared for college living, and have something known as college readiness.
According to this study from Varsity Tutors found in U.S. News Report, living abroad provides a maturing experience for high schoolers unlike anything else. Students who have had the exchange experience, even as short as a summer term, are just more ready for the independence of on campus living.
Besides this, living abroad specifically in a place that requires another language is beneficial for your child’s resume. If your child is able to acquire or enhance his or her speaking of a different language from their time abroad, colleges and jobs want to know!
Our daughter was already fluent in German when she began her year abroad, but the time there most certainly helped her foreign language skills grow.
She is now the president of the LSU German Club, was able to ‘test out’ of several German courses (saving money while adding the credits!), and was easily able to add German as a minor to her biology degree.
As well, during her stay there, she was featured in a local newspaper. This was quite the footnote in her college applications and during college interviews.
Living Abroad Boosts Career Networking
It should not surprise to anyone that an exchange year can provide several networking opportunities. But the extent is really immeasurable!
While abroad, the amount of people your child has added to their ‘contact list’ is truly global in number. There are plenty of stories from adults who are still in connection with their former host families, decades later.
Often as adults, they travel back to their abroad country and visit with their host families, still considered family. Alexis certainly has stayed in contact with her second host family, and naturally, her host parents and I are Facebook friends.
In addition to their host families, those who study abroad meet people within the community. Our daughter was able to secure a part time job/internship while in Köln, translating German medical transcripts. The company extended a future internship.
As well, her experience across the ocean has opened doors within the local community too. Through networking connected to her abroad experience, she was able to secure a competitive volunteer placement at George Washington Med Star and a summer assistant position at Duke University.
Boys vs. Girls Abroad
In this modern times, in the guise of equality, exists the trend to think there is no difference between boys and girls. Well, this is certainly not the case with most things, and likewise, with studying abroad experiences. Instead, it is critical to recognize that boys and girls are different (though it should go without saying one is not better than the other).
For many high schoolers, living abroad is the first time they’ll be out and about on their own. Depending on the area, the safety issue will vary.
For example, students placed in city centers are more likely to encounter pick pockets (most common form of crime to tourists).Someone in Kyoto with its low crime rate will have less to worry about than a student abroad in Rio de Janeiro, where crime is high.
For girls, however, the risks can be even greater, as evidenced by an article from the New York Times dedicated to the the darker side of travel specifically for women. And the US Department of State said, “The truth is that women face greater obstacles, especially when travelling alone.”
It certainly won’t hurt for all high schoolers to learn self-defense prior to their study abroad no matter where they go, but girls especially would benefit. If you are even considering an exchange year for your child, I encourage you to enroll them in a martial arts program!
Cultural Differences Abroad
What your high schooler encounters based on his or her gender will be related to where they are. One thing a person learns right away when studying abroad is that cultural differences are a real thing! Don’t be fooled!
Top countries where U.S. students study abroad:
- United Kingdom
- Costa Rica
Abroad in Europe Of course, “Europe” is not one destination and among its many countries, cultural differences abound. However, Europe is home to the top study abroad locations with the United Kingdom tops and Italy a close second in recent years.
One reason it is so popular is that it feels most like its American cousin. True, one of the favorite differences is its ease of travel/commuting by public transportation. But the similarities of food, clothing and housing structures appeal to high schoolers stepping out. It’s the same, yet different…a home away from home feel.
Abroad in Asia Asia represents 48 countries from China to Saudi Arabia to Japan to Thailand, so again, there are A LOT of differences even among this region for students to encounter abroad.
However, one thing in common in most is dress code expectations that focus predominantly on women. While not officially illegal in some, the idea for most is that shoulders are covered and no tank tops, short skirts/shorts, flip flops, or tight clothing.
Many places such as Japan and South Korea aren’t as concerned about revealing clothing but rather have high regard for fancier or nicer dress, meaning no torn or ripped jeans, shirts tucked, and shiny shoes. Boys, take note, this one affects you too.
Abroad in South America While South America has a mass of natural beauty and certainly some of the kindest, most generous peoples, it must be acknowledged that it also houses some of the most dangerous areas.
Both Venezuela and Brazil have extremely high murder rates and the poverty across South America creates its own set of problems with sanitation and water, etc.
That being said, both girls and boys will need to be cautious of traveling outside of their host families’ wary eye and again, female students face a higher rate of becoming a victim of crime.
SO…Keeping all of this in mind, both boys and girls will face challenges and have potential for great success studying abroad. Both will become more independent, having to rely on their own decision-making and problem solving skills.
Statistics show more girls will become victims of crime than boys; both will encounter cultural differences but girls will probably be more affected by clothing restrictions. All of this should be discussed with your child beforehand to minimize issues if possible.
Costs of an Exchange Experience
There are several options for parents who want to send their high schoolers abroad for an exchange period. Some programs are short summer stints, while others last a full school year (~10 months) or longer. No matter, cost is always an issue.
There are programs where parents simply pay for their child’s experience. Some of these involve dormitory style living and others involve the traditional host family situation. Usually in the cases of host families with pay programs, the family receives an allowance for food, lodging, and incidentals while the remainder of the fee is for airfare, excursions, and the travel company administration costs.
Pay programs also offer the most flexibility. With this, you’ll get to decide where you want to go, for how long, and won’t have to do any reciprocation.
There are also programs were ‘exchange’ is literal, meaning your child goes abroad while you receive a visitor yourself, sometimes at the same time and other times, one follows the other once finished. Situations like this often make it more affordable for families but of course, don’t have as much flexibility as simply a pay program offers.
However, you may be fortunate like us to have your child earn a scholarship abroad. Our daughter applied and interviewed for, then was finally awarded the CBYX Scholarship to study abroad in Germany. It was fully funded, though like at home, you’ll still be expected to cover incidentals such as shampoo, medications, and train fare for everyday commuting.
Living abroad in Europe also meant the opportunity for quick jaunts to other countries (though certainly not required) which you’ll be expected to cover, if you so choose for your child. Other abroad areas such as Asia and South America also offer extended fun with additional fees.
After Affects on Education
Naturally with studying abroad, parents must consider the lasting effects on their child’s education. Will your child need permission from his or her ‘home’ school? What kind of schooling will they receive as an exchange student?
As for needing permission from the local US school, it varies. For example, we homeschooled Lexi so it wasn’t necessary to notify anyone that she was abroad. I simply registered as a homeschooler and provided the list of subjects she’d cover, knowing it would be auf Deutsch.
If your child is part of an outside school (public or private), you will need to discuss this with them. Often schools will accept the transcript from the host school but it depends on each situation.
And sometimes, they won’t. One such case involved a friend of my daughter who also was a recipient of the CBYX award. He ended up repeating his junior year, graduating a year later, after his friends, since his public school wouldn’t accept the credits of the German Gynasium.
He knew this going into the program and chose to continue, so it really depends upon your child as to how important that issue is. In the grand scheme of things, what’s one extra year of high school in exchange for a year of Karneval/Carnival, Pretzels, trains, and medieval castles and churches?
Living Abroad Takeaway
Let’s look back at our beginning question: why do parents send their child to study abroad?
There are many reasons, as explained. Life skills and lessons learned; cultural variety and exploration; travel; perks to college applications and career network pool and more.
Yet, it is not without frustration and headache, high cost, and even the potential for risk to your child’s safety.
Ultimately, you and your child will have to weigh the pros and cons and decide for yourselves if it’s worth it. As for us, we are so glad we did it!