By Dave Wieczorek
City & Shore Magazine
They come, they go.
From Shanghai to Parkland. From Weston to Barcelona. From Moscow to Coconut Creek. From Senegal to Fort Lauderdale. From Hollywood to Hangzhou.
For many high-school students in South Florida and many more coming here from other countries, the world has become their study hall. As the walls of their schools expand, so too does their education as they seek opportunities to learn about people, places and cultures thousands of miles out of their comfort zones.
“It’s an eye-opening experience going to school in another country,” says Dalton Sargeant, a senior at Cardinal Gibbons in Fort Lauderdale who raced cars in his spare time while spending his freshman and sophomore years at the American School in Switzerland when his father’s work took the family to Europe.
“I always wanted to study in another country, because I enjoy having new experiences and learning new ideas,” says Felipe Ihns, a junior at American Heritage School in Plantation who grew up in Rio de Janeiro. “If I didn’t decide to study in the U.S., I’d be wondering what it would have been like.”
“It’s been a great cultural experience,” says senior Eugenie Levy, who was born in France and lived in the African countries of Burkina Faso and Senegal before enrolling at Cardinal Gibbons her freshman year. “Going to another country opens your mind to people and things you never thought about before.”
Traveling is their passport to knowledge.
“Studying abroad is the best form of education, and I am not alone in that view,” says Kathy Blyth, director of guidance at Cardinal Gibbons. “St. Augustine believed that ‘the world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.’ Studying abroad is often a life-changing experience.”
Marian Mirchandani, coordinator of American Heritage’s International Host Family Program, who is a half-Irish, half-Spanish native of Puerto Rico, says: “We have become a global society, and students who get exposed to many cultures become culturally and internationally sensitive and accepting.”
Countless opportunities are available for students to study in another country for a few weeks during summer breaks, for a semester or longer during the academic year. Some high schools have formal international-study or cultural exchange programs. If not, guidance and college-prep offices can lead students to dozens of programs sponsored by nonprofit and religious organizations and state and federal governments.
According to a 2014 report by the Institute of International Education, close to 75,000 international students study at American secondary schools, a majority of whom intend to study at a U.S. college or university. (A figure for the number of American high-school students who study abroad each year was not available, and most schools do not track the number of students who choose summer travel/study programs unaffiliated with the school.)
“Studying abroad helps students develop cultural dexterity, which is of great value to students … future employers and society as a whole,” says Jim Pitts, director of International Programs at Florida State University.
In American Heritage’s host program, “We have students representing 43 countries,” says Mirchandani, noting that more than 20 of the school’s American students also study abroad each year. “That gives our students the opportunity to make friends from around the world and establish friendships that will last a lifetime.”
At Cardinal Gibbons, which does not have a formal international program, a few American students participate in travel/study programs in summer or during the academic year, with about 100 students from the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Canada, Europe, Africa and Asia enrolled annually at the school.
“For students who have yet to see the world, the next best thing is to see the world through the eyes of non-native students,” Blyth says. “These new friendships personalize global connections. After all, how can you not feel the angst of the French people after a terrorist attack when your classmate or teammate is worrying about an older sister who still lives in Paris?
“We learn from each other both in and out of class.”
Venturing Far From Home
“I was 14 when I came here,” says Kateryna Kosobudska, a junior in NSU University School’s Global Scholars Program, who left three sisters and a brother behind in Odessa, a Ukrainian seaport on the Black Sea, along with the armed conflict between her country and Russia. She lives with a host family in Hallandale Beach.
“I was excited and of course nervous. I wanted to go home sometimes. I had never been away from my parents for more than two weeks. But I stayed. I want a better life for myself.”
Kosobudska plans to go attend a U.S. college and become a neurologist, which she says would not be possible in Ukraine.
“You can’t really get work there in any area you want. The only way for me to get work in Ukraine was to continue in my father’s clothing business, and I didn’t really want to.”
Andrés Del Castillo is a junior in his second year at North Broward Preparatory School in Pompano Beach, which has students from more than 30 countries living in its on-campus dormitories. His father is a lawyer back home in Monterey, Mexico, and his mother a teacher. He came to Florida “for the opportunities North Broward offers and for the exposure we get at this school to colleges.”
Del Castillo was already fluent in English when he enrolled at North Broward, “but the school, the culture, the food, everything was new to me. Now I play soccer and American football, and I’m a residential prefect.”
The transitions can be a little more challenging for students coming from another continent and a world of culture away. When Yingyu “Christal” Cao came to American Heritage from Shanghai two years ago she was “scared” and “nervous.”
“I’d like to live with my family here, but for my future, for my education, I had to do this,” Christal says.
The sophomore, who lives with a host family in Parkland, adopted an anglicized name so new friends wouldn’t struggle with pronouncing her Chinese name. She plans to attend college in the United States.
“The education system in China isn’t great,” she says. “In middle school and high school the classes you can take are limited, and they are all the same. Here I can choose whatever I want, like chemistry and math. In China everyone studies the same thing. They really focus on the scores. You need to study hard, hard, hard. You don’t have much free time. That’s a lot of pressure.”
Kids in China are required to take the “Gaokao,” a rigorous multiday test.
“Even Saturdays and Sundays they study 12 hours a day. They’re not allowed to move from their chairs,” says Dale Miller, NSU University School’s coordinator of Student Academic Success Services.
Unlike in China, Christal has time after classes and studying for extracurricular activities.
“I’m involved in chorus and have performed at Disney World and Carnegie Hall,” she says.
Spencer Chancey, a junior at University School, went in the opposite direction from Christal. He left his home in Hollywood to study in Hangzhou, a city southwest of Shanghai, the summer before his sophomore year. The all-expense-paid, six-week immersion trip to China came courtesy of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
He admits that making the trip at such a young age was scary.
“You’re going for six weeks abroad with people you don’t know and you’re living for six weeks with a family that does not speak English,” Chancey says. “You have to learn to communicate all over again. It definitely got easier toward the end of the six weeks.”
He wants to go to college to become a system engineer, “so being able to tie a fluency in the language into that I’d be able to do research in China with native Chinese people.
“It’s really an eye-opening experience to see the world from another country’s point of view and being able to communicate with someone in their native language. Not only will they like you a lot more, it helps you overall in relations with people in that country.”
Regina Kudryavtseva arrived in South Florida from Moscow with her family the summer before her sophomore year and is now a junior at Cardinal Gibbons.
“It was my parents’ idea to come to here and stay, because things weren’t so good in Russia,” Kudryavtseva says. “I was really happy because it had been my dream to come to America. I could receive a good education and go to a good college. And my life would be better than in Russia.
“I was scared and afraid, because I was concerned about my language and how I was going to make friends. Now I have really good friends and they don’t care where I’m from and don’t care how I speak.”
For other students, such as American Heritage’s Antares Tobelem and Sunny Li, study abroad was an ideal chance to immerse themselves in another culture.
Tobelem, a junior from Weston, spent a month in Barcelona the summer between her freshman and sophomore years as a scholarship student in the Oxbridge Academic Program. She took classes there in the Global Medicine Program. When not studying, there were long walks in a vibrant city and cultural enrichment like flamenco dancing and cooking classes in the evening.
“I had just turned 15,” Tobelem says, “and it was my first time out of the country, my first time being by myself. I left on Independence Day, which was kind of ironic. I documented everything I did. For me it was like personal research project, because I could go and learn about the world.”
Li, a senior from Davie, traveled to Granada and Madrid in summer 2014 for three weeks as part of the Sol Abroad Spanish-language immersion program.
“I’ve lived in Florida my whole life, so traveling to Spain opened my eyes to different things,” says Li, whose parents were born in China. “You get to see how people in different countries live, what their lifestyle is. Spain’s culture is so different from here. Everyone is sort of laid-back, no one’s rushing, everyone’s enjoying life.
“The first week I tried to take a siesta, but then I stopped. There were too many things to do.”
Opening a Door to the World
As important as travel is to enhancing students’ credentials for college, the cultural experience is just as valuable in developing a well-rounded individual.
For the past two years, Gloria Garcia, coordinator of the Cultural Exchange Program at Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches, has organized trips to Beijing and Palermo, Sicily. Chinese and Italian families hosted McCarthy students for two weeks, and McCarthy families returned the favor. Another trip to Sicily is likely in the spring, with Spain and Germany possible exchanges in the future. The students attend each others’ classes and go on field trips.
“There is no academic credit, but it’s a tremendous opportunity for the students,” says the Cuban-born Garcia. “To meet teenagers from other parts of the world – to learn about different cultures, food and languages – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
And apparently it’s never too early to begin one’s cultural maturation.
St. Mark’s Episcopal School in Fort Lauderdale accepts seasonal elementary students as part of an arrangement with language academies in South Florida. When families from abroad arrive in South Florida, usually for temporary job-related reasons, they enroll their children at St. Mark’s for that period of time.
“Cultural and ethnic diversity is part of our mission statement,” says Alice Hendrickson, the school’s director of admissions. “Right now with 21st-century learning and a global economy, we need to provide these opportunities for our kids.”
St. Mark’s also runs an exchange program with the Holy Family Bilingual School in Honduras.
“A select group of high-achieving seventh- and eighth-graders from their school live with our families for a week,” Hendrickson says. “They get immersed in American family life, and our kids get to practice their Spanish and interact with the Honduran kids.”
(Due to safety concerns related to crime and political unrest, St. Mark’s students have not traveled to Honduras the past two years. Hendrickson says the exchange could resume in spring.)
University School’s Miller says that for students of any age studying in another country makes them aware of the world “outside their own door.”