While I have written at length about my experiences as a study abroad student during college, I’ve never gone into too much detail regarding my first ever international living experience as a high school student. I have of course mentioned that my month in the Mexican colonial city of Querétaro, was what truly spurred my ardent desire to see and experience as much of the world as possible. However, I’ve never really talked about what it meant to be a 16 year old in
a foreign country without my family and where I only spoke beginner’s level Spanish. Although I realize that the world I lived in as a 16 year old is completely different from the one that today’s 16 year olds are living in (i.e. there was no Facebook, smartphones, or any form of social media and/or technological obnoxiousness running rampant). Nonetheless, I hope that my words will serve as some benefit to both teens looking to go abroad for maybe the first time and their parents.
-Just as with small children, no two teenagers are going to be the same. So while one 16 year may be extremely mature and independent, another may lack the maturity to handle being on their own in a foreign country without the comfort and familiarity of “home.” Parents-you most likely know your child better than anyone else. If he has problems being responsible in an everyday environment, do you really think he’ll be responsible in a foreign country?
-While legal drinking age in the rest of the world is almost always lower than in the United States, where it is 21, alcohol is most likely going to be available even if your child is only 16. Although teenagers may find this extremely enticing, alcohol and teenagers abroad do not mix (nor does anyone at any age who abuses alcohol). In my program, there was a group who on the weekends would go to clubs and drink. I did not and while at the time I felt lame for not being invited (I guess I was not considered cool enough to be told about it), as a much more worldly and mature 28 year old, I’m glad I was not. Nothing was more pathetic than seeing a couple of my program mates looking absolutely miserable due to the hangovers they were nursing, all the while preparing to get on a 5 plus hour flight. One only need look at the tragic example of 18 year Natalee Holloway to realize how quickly a fatal mistake can be made. I would definitely talk with your child to stress the seriousness of abusing alcohol when in a foreign country, especially since they will always be subject to that nation’s laws.
-Although programs in English speaking countries may appeal the most to you and your child, don’t necessarily rule out those in non-English speaking destinations. I went to Mexico with only two years of Spanish under my belt and while I probably would have had a crappy time had it not been for my completely fluent English speaking host brother, being able to take those two years of Spanish and be in a country where it was naturally spoken was an incredible experience. So whether your child wants to go to a Spanish speaking, French speaking, or even German speaking country, encourage that if it means bolstering their language learning efforts back at school. Later on my experiences as a study abroad student in college showed me how much a difference it makes when you are learning the language in the country where it is spoken.
-International programs for high school students will almost always feature a home stay program and I can’t stress enough how worthwhile an experience this is. As I would find in Costa Rica, host families can be hit or miss, but I do feel that overall host families for high school student programs are perhaps screened a bit more rigorously, knowing that high school students will not be as mature and possibly experience greater levels of homesickness than a college student would, so you’re bound to end up with a winning one. My Mexican host family was wonderful and while I tried hard in the year after I had returned for my host sister to come to the United States to stay with my family, it never worked out. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still think of them at times, even a decade later. When they say you can make memories lasting a lifetime, they mean it.
-Don’t be afraid. You’re bound to get homesick wherever you go but just know that it will pass. Initially everything will overwhelm you-the living in a foreign country, the different food, different people and yet in time you will get into a groove and what had previously stood out as differences will start to feel comfortable and familiar. Although I would have my moments in the first couple of weeks, usually at night when I was alone in my bedroom and missing everything, towards the end of the month I still missed things, yet could also recognize what an incredible opportunity I was experiencing.
This list is hardly exhaustive but it’s one that I think would resonate with any high school student and his parents, regardless of whether it was 2001 or will be 2015.