Kristina Riordan ’19 could feel everyone’s eyes on her. Surrounded by 17-year-olds speaking rapidly in an Italian dialect she couldn’t understand, Riordan was briefly overwhelmed with terror. The prospect of spending nine months at the traditional Italian high school felt more daunting than ever, she said.
However, within a few weeks, Riordan felt fully immersed in the city of Viterbo, and the students she once found intimidating became some of her closest friends.
“My year in Italy was the hardest, yet most rewarding, year of my life,” Riordan said. “Once I got past feeling homesick and having serious FOMO [(fear of missing out)], I was able to immerse myself in a new culture and way of living. It was a roller coaster of a year, and when I look back, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I grew as a person and learned how to be independent.”
Riordan spent her high school junior year abroad in Italy through the School Year Abroad program. Approximately five students per year study abroad during their junior year, Kutler Center and Summer Programs director Jim Patterson said.
Exchange programs like SYA help foster independence in students to a greater extent than the normal Harvard-Westlake experience, Patterson said.
Andrew Sington ’20, who is currently studying abroad in Zaragoza, Spain, said he enjoys having the freedom to explore the city and Spain on his own.
“As long as I travel with at least one other classmate and fill out a form that details our travel plans, we make all of our own travel arrangements, I can travel anywhere in Spain,” Sington said.
Founded over 50 years ago, SYA strives to foster personal transformation and global understanding, according to the SYA website. The program operates in four countries — China, France, Italy and Spain — with classes taught in both English and the country of immersion’s native language.
“[Some of] my SYA courses are taught entirely in Spanish,” Sington said.
“This has been particularly challenging in courses like economics and science, which require knowledge of specialized vocabulary that I’d never encountered before in any of my Harvard-Westlake Spanish classes. I faced a very steep learning curve and had to work hard to get to the point where I could understand everything that was being taught in SYA’s Spanish immersion curriculum.”
Because of the immersive nature of the experience, students often have limited contact with Harvard-Westlake. During the year, deans continue to help students when they are abroad, but students are often caught up in the entire experience and do not reach out to them frequently, Patterson said. Students also have relatively little contact with their friends and families. SYA discourages students from communicating with friends and family back home to encourage them to be completely immersed, Sington said.
“It’s difficult to communicate with friends in Los Angeles because of the nine-hour time difference and because I’m constantly busy, but I try to keep in touch sporadically through Snapchat,” Sington said.
Students who study abroad are also limited when it comes to beginning the college application process in the United States, Patterson said.
“Because I’ve been out of the country, I haven’t yet had the opportunity visit any college campuses,” Sington said. “I’m not really sure what kind of college I want to go to.”
However, Thompson Wu ’18, who spent his junior year in Shanghai, China through the SYA program, said that he believes his year abroad was actually an advantage during the college process.
“Those two semesters abroad are what allowed me to stick out when being profiled among the millions of teens applying for college that year,” Wu said. “Without it, I definitely wouldn’t have been as unique. This experience gave me so much to write about in my application; I definitely used it to my advantage. I 100 percent believe that everyone should study abroad once in their life, whether it be high school or college.”
The increased opportunities that arise from immersion experiences also comes with difficulties, Patterson said. After spending junior year abroad, students must make the transition back to Harvard-Westlake.
“Generally speaking, the transition is relatively smooth,” Patterson said. “Students who attend these programs keep up with their academic work and are prepared for their senior year when they return. Sometimes, returning students can find it difficult to return to their home and school where they are not given as much freedom. Plus, going away is such a different experience; students sometimes feel as if they have changed but their friends have not.”
The emotional and psychological distress that happens while reintegrating is called reverse culture shock, according to the U.S. Department of State.
Wu said he felt shocked when he first returned to the United States halfway through the program.
“Coming home for the first time was an extremely happy but overwhelming experience,” Wu said. “I believe I came home around four months into my journey in China. When I got into the US and got to go home and see friends, I felt different. Nothing felt bad; I just saw the United States and our culture differently.”
Despite the potential complications of studying abroad during high school, Youth Exchanges for The Experiment in International Living and World Learning Divisional Vice President Christina Thomas said studying abroad helps students explore future opportunities.
“Studying abroad prepares students to thrive in diverse environments and careers by giving them an opportunity to develop invaluable cross-cultural, leaders and language skills, while building their understanding of critical global issues,” Thomas said. “These competencies will also be vital in their role as the next generation of leaders who will need to confront the challenges of a globalized economy and highly interconnected social and natural environments.”
For many students, going abroad in high school is a way to change their environment and learn about a new culture.
“Traveling has always been a passion of mine, and when I heard about SYA, I knew that I had to do it,” Riordan said. “I spent months convincing my parents, researching everything there is to know about the program and Italy and lying in my bed for hours imagining the experience I soon would get to take.”
Wu said his experience studying in China helped him mature and learn through his exposure to new opportunities.
“Living in America all my life, I feel like I, along with so many other Americans, am trapped in a bubble,” Wu said. “However, after leaving for an entire two semesters, I was able to finally step out of my comfort zone and learn so much about how the rest of the world works. The experience as a whole was amazing but it also humbled me.”