Do-It-Yourself Study Abroad

The following is a guest post by KufiGirl

A while ago, On Point did an interview with Maya Frost, author of The New Global Student, a book advising teenagers to quit high school and go abroad, where they can pick up college credits, foreign languages, and global skills. I bought her book and had finished it by the time the program re-aired in the evening.

I followed a path similar to the one she recommends and I agree with most of what she says (although how she says it sometimes grates — more on that below). When I was fifteen I studied abroad in Germany, but not on any formal exchange program. I just moved in with my grandparents and enrolled directly in the local public high school. That same year an American girlfriend moved in with my aunt and uncle, also living in Germany, and their daughter went to live with my friend’s parents in California. Arranging these exchanges is pretty straightforward if you know someone — or know someone who knows someone who knows someone — willing to swap children for a few months. It makes no sense to pay an agency $10,000 or more to go to the trouble for you, and Frost’s book provides several tips on setting something up in a country even if you have no contacts (yet). She rightly calls most of these agencies a waste of money, with the notable exception of organizations like Rotary that provide scholarship funding.

She argues that students shouldn’t wait until college (or later) to do this. Young brains are still flexible, she says, and the impact of living in another culture will do more for a teenager than it will for someone over twenty. Adolescence is a period of intensity. Teenagers notice everything around them; they are not even capable of shutting that part of their brain off, of getting stuck in a rut, of saying “but we always do things this way…” That intensity is inevitably going to go somewhere, and it’s better to direct at something real, like foreign travel, than to stifle it in the world of shopping, malls, prom queens, and video games. Young people also pick up languages faster. Exposing the teenage brain to another culture will pay off for a student’s entire life in ways that travel when s/he’s older will not.

Most teens who come back from such an experience will have different priorities about their future. This, she argues, is a feature, not a bug, although it’s often the thing that scares parents most. The tiny world of high school seems so limited after you’ve spent a year managing on your own in another country, in another language. It was in Germany that I decided I wanted to graduate early; when I came back home I heaped on the correspondence classes in order to make that happen. Apparently I’m not alone. Her book is filled with stories from other high school exchange students who’ve had the same experience of wanting to get high school over and done with as soon as possible — or who simply decided not to come home at all. This possibility terrifies most parents, but again she argues it’s a positive. The world needs global citizens, and the flexibility and language skills acquired abroad are more useful in the long run than staying on the regular high school track would be. She advises teens not to worry about having the typical four-year college experience and to just pick up as many college credits as they can through a combination of CLEP tests, community college and correspondence courses, and foreign language programs abroad. Transfer the whole lot to any affordable college, spend a year or two there, and you’ll have a BA by the time you’re twenty or so. It doesn’t matter if it’s a name-brand university; what matters is that you’re fluent in Spanish or Swahili, you have no debt, you’re young, and that you know how to travel the world.

Predictably, most of the criticism she’s gotten focuses on class. “This is a rich white kid thing,” she’s told. She (and her husband, who seems to be the primary breadwinner) argue that actually it’s cheaper than the regular high school-to-college track. A Rotary program might cost a couple thousand dollars, which is cheaper than having your sixteen-year-old live with you in your own home for a year; after all, they’re being fed by some family in Paris. And colleges abroad are usually cheaper than their American counterparts, since most countries subsidize higher education.

I feel strongly both ways. Frost’s audience is the suburban family for whom college is a non-optional expectation. She tells them to get out of the rat race and quit worrying about AP classes and SAT scores, to not be so overprotective of their children, and to teach them the virtue of getting by on less. She’s clearly not thinking about the kids who know all about getting by on less, who live in dangerous neighborhoods where children being “overprotected” is the least of their parents’ worries, who don’t stress about AP classes because their school doesn’t offer any, who will have to fight to get a high school diploma at all because the teaching they receive is so ineffective, or who have disabilities that can’t or wouldn’t be managed by an unrelated family in a foreign country. When she says parents can save tens of thousands of dollars on their children’s educations she’s assuming they have college savings or will be contributing to their kids’ educations out of pocket, but five or ten thousand dollars isn’t “cheap” if your starting expectation was zero. And when she says it’s less expensive to send your child abroad than to have him/her live at home, she’s assuming your child doesn’t contribute anything to the household, like income from a part-time job that goes towards the utility bill, or unpaid care for younger siblings. Most of all she’s assuming that duh, of course your kid is going to college somewhere: it’s just a question of where and how. The better part of her book is about dealing with criticism from people who will think you’re crazy for sending your kids abroad and letting them miss rites of passage like prom. But for a lot of families, that’s the least of their worries.

She also assumes that your kids will be competing with other monolingual white American kids, and won’t they be lucky to have this global advantage? Absent are the kids who are already bilingual, by virtue of growing up in an immigrant family. She constructs many hypothetical situations in which your global child is favored in a job interview over Jessie and Steve, who’ve only been to England, but in my experience the real competition is Noriko, who speaks Japanese without an accent. On the surface this may seem like an argument for pushing a global view even harder — after all, other countries have much greater facility with giving their students a multilingual education, and the world is increasingly transnational — but underneath it there needs to be a discussion of white/American-born privilege. If Ben who spent two years in France is getting a job over Emmanuel whose family is from Haiti, well, what’s going on with that? Did Ben really get his job because he’s “a global citizen,” or is there a little bit more to it? Would Emmanuel’s summer working on a farm abroad really look the same on a college application as Ben’s summer doing the same? Are we allowed to talk about that? Or are we just supposed to celebrate Ben’s ability to order a meal in a Romance language?

All that said, I appreciate that she’s taking a machete to the view that traveling abroad is reserved for the children of the elite. Although more than half of graduating high school seniors say they plan to study abroad, very few of them actually do, because they look at the price tag for these programs and assume they’re out of the question. One of the things she hammers home is that “official” study abroad programs are far more expensive than organizing one’s own travel — what she calls “indie” programs — because when you go with a study abroad program you are paying the university fees at your home institution, too. She advises students to enroll directly in foreign schools.

This is what I did as a college junior at The American University in Cairo (AUC), and I was shocked to learn that some American students had spent an extra ten or twenty thousand dollars for the exact same credits I was earning. I also learned that there were even cheaper options I hadn’t known about. Later, in grad school, I went back to Egypt and arranged independent study credit for research I was doing and for taking Arabic language classes at a private language school. This cost even less than AUC, which was already cheaper than most American colleges. And Egypt, like most countries, had a lower cost of living compared to the United States. Here she is absolutely correct: getting most or all of one’s college education in another country is potentially far cheaper than entering the American system of higher education, where even public universities charge tuition.

Unfortunately, Frost’s book is mainly concerned with convincing you that this is a viable option. That’s great, but what would have been more helpful would have been lists, lists, and more lists of universities abroad, high school correspondence options, short-term study options, foreign language schools, work abroad programs, Peace Corps alternatives, and tips for funding it all. Luckily this information is available online for the dedicated student who is willing to search for it, but it’ll be nice when it moves into the realm of common knowledge, when parents, teachers, and guidance counselors stop telling kids there is only one — monolingual, monocultural — path into adulthood. Frost’s book is a start.