For today’s secondary school students, a study abroad can be something they do before college and a chance to inform their future studies or improve their college applications.
Each fall, Friends School of Baltimore hosts a school fair for domestic and international semester programs that students complete in junior or senior year. Some of the schools that attend are Island School in the Bahamas, Maine Coast Semester and Montaverde Friends School in Costa Rica. Students who participate in these programs — “usually a handful each year” — often choose to study at an international Quaker school, sometimes for a semester or for a full year, says Steve McManus, upper school principal.
“The advantages are that it exposes them to a different part of the world, to different experiences, living independently and learning in the international community with other students from the U.S. or the world,” he says.
Like many high schoolers, students at Friends are heavily involved in extracurriculars, McManus adds, so it’s hard for them to pick a semester because they’re going to miss something. Those who choose to study elsewhere see it as a “tradeoff that’s well worth it.”
“I’ve seen students return from those programs with so much more focus, purpose and maturity,” he says. “You don’t hear, ‘I missed out on the prom.’”
Something else to consider is that many core requirements in high school are yearlong and not semester long. But students who step outside the sequence can make up the semester during the summer to stay on pace.
“Colleges that we talk to like students who have had experiences where they’ve pushed themselves and taken academic risks. That bodes well for students to be successful in college,” he says.
For students who don’t want to leave for semester, there are spring language immersion trips in Spanish, French, Russian and Latin. The trips are not a requirement but are designed to be accessible in both time and for the family finances.
In Montgomery County Public Schools, immersion happens here and abroad. In the fall, a group of French students, hosted by MCPS families, comes to the county to attend classes and sightsee. In the spring, MCPS students who are studying French III or a higher level travel to France for the same kind of experience. Other county schools send students to Spain.
“Culturally, they’re getting to understand what is happening in other countries. On a human level, being able to communicate with other people is invaluable,” says Francoise Vandenplas, the county’s world languages supervisor. “It is culturally such an awakening, eye-opening experience. The school system is so different — the buildings, course offerings, their schedule. Here, we have a seven- or eight-period day. In Europe, it’s a rotating schedule. Monday is different from Tuesday or Wednesday. Some courses are every day, some twice a week.”
For students who don’t travel abroad but host international students, the experience is also important. They still see firsthand what it’s like to be immersed in a new culture and to learn a language as they are speaking it.
“It’s always an awakening experience,” Vandenplas says.
It’s also one that involves a lot of planning. Trips abroad last about 10 days, and students have to make up work they miss. Also, teachers are often asked to provide work in advance to the traveling students. Because of the preparation, many schools try to plan a trip that bridges spring break. But that doesn’t always work with the host school’s schedule.
Other ways to get overseas
Students at Notre Dame Preparatory School who don’t want to study overseas through one of the school’s English, history or world language programs can travel to another country for a service trip — a learning experience offered by many private or parochial schools in our area.
“They are justice-oriented trips, typically grounded in cross-cultural interactions and engagement,” says Steve Pomplon, NDP’s director of service. “In Costa Rica, we go to a sloth sanctuary and look at how the ecosystem has been changing and how it’s affecting sloths in particular, and intern at the sanctuary.”
The trips are only open to seniors and are supported by the school to keep costs down. The emphasis is on the interconnectivity of the world and building an “authentic” cross-cultural engagement, he says.
“We want to situate this type of immersion experience differently than other travel,” Pomplon says. “You build solidarity, you’re not a tourist.”
That fits with the mission of the school’s founding order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, which is international, and with one of the school’s goals of creating and educating “empathetic global citizens,” he says. It also coincides with a growing interest in study abroad from both students and parents — and the fact that both colleges and future employers like students to have international experience.
For many students, the desire to travel aboard comes from a sense of vocation. For other seniors, it’s a chance to narrow down their interests as they choose a college.
“One student decided she was going to study in Scotland and continue the cross-cultural experience,” Pomplon says. “Another student realized she wanted to get into international development. That’s one of the biggest benefits, either a direct decision or realizing that traveling and encountering other cultures is something they’ll continue to do.”
Schools play host
As more high school students decide to travel abroad, a growing number of schools also host international students who are eager for an American education experience.
“At the upper school, we currently host a cohort of international students, some of whom come to us through consultants or agencies — East Asia and other countries — for an American high school experience,” McManus says. “They matriculate and get four years here, then transfer that to a college education.”
Friends started hosting international students five years ago after much planning and in response to demand for the day-school experience.
“Boarding schools have long hosted students from Asia, but some places had reached a saturation point,” he says. Other parents “wanted their students to have more of an American high school experience, not to come to a school with a lot of other Chinese students.”
Friends does not offer ESL or a separate pullout program for their international students, so applicants must achieve a certain score on the TOEFL, the most recognized English language test. Once they arrive, students complete classes and coursework alongside their peers with no real ESL accommodations. Each year, Friends also hosts two students in the ASSIST program, which places international students in American independent schools for one-year exchanges. The program is super competitive and includes an admissions process and orientation. Students come from all over the world, but a school can only host two.
The advantage to study abroad for both American and international students is that they are prepared for a life beyond “their typical high school experience,” McManus says. “They are being the architects of their own learning.”