Study Abroad in High School: Get Your Passport and Go, Sooner Rather than Later

Pocket PassportTransitioning into your high school years is often a mixed bag of emotions: definitely some excitement, probably some hesitation, a lot of expectation, and all rightly so. It’s a formative period of your life. Those years are as much about becoming the person you will be and developing your interests as they are about building a platform for your further education and career aspirations.

But let’s be honest. After you learn the ropes of high school, try your hand at some extracurricular activities, and maybe experience a prom, the high school experience leaves something to be desired for many people. This is one reason that some adventuresome students set their sights on the unique opportunity of enrolling in a high school study abroad program. The appeal is apparent: travel to a new part of the world (without your parents), learn a new language, meet new people from a different culture, and have an authentic international experience, all while you’re in high school. It sounds almost too good to be true!

Brandon Green, a student who traveled to Herdeke, Germany through a program at his school in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, considers it the most memorable time of his life. “I went to Germany not knowing the language,” he says. “I had never traveled abroad and had no idea what to expect. What I got was a wake-up call to the world. The first day in Frankfurt was awesome. I had never been in such a large city, let alone one so different from any place in Oklahoma.” Brandon says that having the right mindset is key to getting the most out of the experience. “I was just ready for everything new. If you go into it ready to learn, you’ll love it. Everything—from the food, my host family and new ‘brother,’ the different school, weekends exploring—was something I’d do again in a heartbeat.”

Like Brandon, many former study abroad students keep in touch with their host families and even go back for later visits. Gary Schuyten, former president of the Rotary Club in his Washington community, recalls the many students he and his wife have hosted. “We’ve had students from all around the world. It’s fascinating to get to know new people, and we love when we get postcards from them. We’ve been invited to visit each of them in their home country.”

High school can be the best time to take advantage of an international study program. Global experience on your college application definitely gives you a boost over other students. Colleges and universities across the United States recognize the value of students who have successfully completed an international study program. According to the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE)

“Admissions officers like seeing international study experience on a résumé—it’s one of the greatest ways for you to acquire the kinds of life skills that can’t be learned in a classroom. Studying abroad shows initiative, maturity, and independence.”

Study abroad programs in high school also have some great advantages over those offered during the college years. College study abroad programs are much more expensive (details on this later), and are often course-of-study-specific and more academically oriented. High school study abroad allows you to immerse yourself in a new culture and language from within the safe structure of a host family, and to explore globally before you need to declare a major or decide on a life path. Because of the eye-opening quality of experiencing the world during your high school years, it’s best to not delay if you’re seriously interested in exploring this study option. The ways study abroad can change you, broaden your interests, and open doors for you mean it can set you on a wonderful path that you may have never considered if you waited until your college years.

In her book, the New Global Student, author Maya Frost says:

“Going on a yearlong exchange during or right after high school is the optimum way to set that adolescent brain on fire and launch a life-changing period of reflection and connection. Compared to a typical junior in college, a junior in high school is:

  • less attached to a particular view about how things are supposed to be
  • less fearful of making mistakes and more willing to try new things
  • less locked into a set of identity markers such as graduation class, college, teams, dorms, roommates and achievements
  • less committed to a particular field of study and therefore open to discovering new talents and interests
  • less likely to have psychological barriers to learning and speaking a new language

The younger student who spends a year abroad is more likely to be transformed by the experience, leading to even greater adaptability and enthusiasm for taking on new challenges.”

So, what does it take to make a study abroad program happen for you in high school? Here are some things to consider:

Do you qualify for high school study abroad?

Before you sign up for this amazing cultural and educational experience, you should determine whether or not you qualify. Most programs only accept students in their junior or senior year of high school, for obvious maturity reasons. While you’re embarking on an individual experience of travel and education, you’re also representing your country, your school, and the leaders who chose to send you. You must be a student of high academic standard (and GPA) and moral character who will bolster the reputation of the program, not compromise it. For this reason, many times your school guidance counselor will be involved in the process of choosing which student(s) are selected for an international program.

If you go through a program sponsored by your local community, such as Rotary International, the requirements may differ. For example, Rotary-sponsored students can be as young as 15-years old, but in addition to being an exceptional student, you’ll have to exhibit some form of community leadership and involvement, along with abiding by specific Rotary requirements.

Where would you like to study abroad, and are you willing to go anywhere?

Once you determine if you qualify for application, you’ll need to consider location. Opportunities to study abroad can be found in more than 155 countries, and while it’s typically not a requirement to know the language, it does help to have some familiarity, especially if you will be enrolled in classes that will count toward your high school education.

Dart on GlobeWhen it comes to learning a new language, age may on your side. It used to be believed that the easiest age at which to learn a language was during early childhood, when a child’s brain is hardwired for language adaptation. However, studies comprised by the International Journal of Bilingualism reveal that researchers have found that the language learning advantage actually occurs later in life. This is because the base of language knowledge already formed makes it easier to transition to new vocabulary.

So, if you’ve already studied Spanish for two years, you can go to a Spanish-speaking country, but understand you already have your foot in the door with other languages that share the same root vocabulary. This means that the knowledge you possess of the Spanish language, in accompaniment with the shared root base of Latin, will make languages such as Italian or Portuguese easier for you to learn. And if you have already studied some German in high school, you’ll have an easier time picking up the Dutch or Swedish language.

However — and it’s an important however – in some high school study abroad programs you may not have much say in where you go. You might be able to indicate preferred countries, but not cities, or, in the case of Rotary International, may not be able to decide your destination at all. Make sure you’ve thought about just adventuresome you are before you apply and put yourself in the placement coordinator’s hands.

How long will you study abroad?

According to the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), programs less than eight weeks long are considered short-term programs, while long-term programs can range from a semester to 11 months. Keep in mind that the start time for many of these programs may vary depending upon your location. For example, for some Rotary International programs, students going to the southern hemisphere start in January, while students traveling in the northern hemisphere begin their programs in August.

With the vast number of study abroad programs, there are many ways for you to adapt the experience to the duration of time you feel most comfortable with. The traditional concept is studying abroad for a year, but there are opportunities for you to study abroad for one semester or even during the gap year (that time after high school and before college). Also, if you are okay with the idea of year round school, there are programs that occur during your summer break. The options are available, though some may be more accessible than others depending upon your local community and school programs.

How much will it cost to study abroad?

In many ways, an international educational experience is priceless. However, there is always a bottom line, and the cost of being an international student must be considered. The cost of your particular experience will depend on the program you choose, the location you decide on, and how you stay. In addition, many students want to capitalize on their time abroad by incorporating extra-curricular travel and experiences, which will drive up the cost as well. So the price will be determined by your specific program, as well as by your individual expectations.

In general, you will most likely be responsible for covering the basics: cost of the international flight, health and travel insurance, the fees associated with obtaining a passport and any necessary visas, as well as application costs. Many programs require you to have an emergency fund in place as well. Rotary International programs are typically the most affordable, and may cost as little as $4,000. For other programs, it’s safe to estimate that total cost of a year-long high school international study program will start around $8,000 and can go as high as $20,000.

However, don’t let that number dissuade you from the experience. Scholarships are available for study abroad programs; you just need to research them and apply. Some community-sponsored programs offer scholarships to assist your family with the costs and can offer reduced rates depending upon available funds.

The cost of a high school study abroad experience should be put into proper perspective, as high school really is the most financially opportune time to go. According to an article published in The New York Times, students who want to study abroad at the collegiate level for one year can expect to pay anywhere from $20,000 to $35,000. Semester-long programs cost less, although not necessarily by half, and short-term programs are offered for around $6,000, but may last for only around three to four weeks.

So, are you ready to get started?Internet Research

If you’re committed and enthusiastic about enrolling in a high school study abroad program, you’ll need to do your research and start early. The application process usually takes at least six months, and includes written essays and rounds of interviews. For example, if you want to study abroad during your junior year of high school, it’s best to get started at the beginning of your sophomore year.

1) Start at your high school.

Ask if there are any school-sponsored programs and let your school guidance counselor know about your interest. Even if your school is not currently enrolled in a program, you could be the student who makes it happen, or your guidance counselor may have access to outside resources you may not know of.

2) Contact your local Rotary Club.

Rotary International is one of the best-known sponsors of high school study abroad programs and they will be ready to assist you with the opportunities they have available. Visit their website, where you can find information about your local chapter, as well as guidebooks that explain the process and address many of the common questions.

3) Do your research.

There are numerous study abroad opportunities that may not yet be specifically represented in your local area and school. Each offers a unique experience, and you want to find the program right for you. Get online, gather information, and consider all the options. See the resources box at the end of this article for some great places to start.

4) Follow directions, exactly.

Understand and follow the specific requirements and timing of each application process. Program coordinators don’t have the time or resources to work with students who don’t follow instructions. This is great experience for the college application process.

5) Stay on track.

Make yourself a timeline so that you meet all deadlines and keep your chances of being accepted into a program in good standing.

Though the process may require a lot of time, initiative, and commitment, studying abroad is well worth the effort. No other high school experience will last in your lifetime memory and change who you are and how you see the world quite like studying abroad.

High School Study Abroad Resources – Council on International Educational Exchange – Rotary International, The Rotary Foundation – Intercultural Programs USA, high school exchange for more than 65 years – CCI Greenheart (Center for Cultural Exchange) – Study abroad experience and know-how, reviews of study abroad programs — Provided by the U.S. State Department, includes listings of programs and scholarships

Fran Sells 2About the Author  At 16 years old, Fran Sells had her first out-of-the-USA experience teaching English in Mexico. Since then, she’s volunteered in South America, Canada, Europe and India, as well as traveling to 12 other countries (and counting). When she’s not traveling, she’s writing about her experiences and dreaming of someday returning to the Croatian coast.