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Study Abroad for Younger Students: Benefits, Challenges, and Solutions

There are now more and more efforts to encourage students to study abroad at a younger age, such as Institute of International Education's (IIE) Generation Study Abroad or the 100,000 Strong initiative. But programs for younger students present their own unique challenges. Today Shuhan Wang and Joy Peyton of the Chinese Early Language and Immersion Network (CELIN) at Asia Society share some advice in tackling them.

By guest bloggers Shuhan Wang and Joy Peyton

Study abroad opportunities for students learning languages are not new, and participation in study abroad has increased significantly during the past decade. Most students involved in study abroad are in college or at a university. Therefore, most of the research on the effects of study abroad is focused on that level, and as such, more resources are available for those students (e.g., Maximizing Study Abroad: Strategies for Language and Culture Learning and Use).

What about study abroad for students in elementary and secondary school? There are now many examples of programs underway across the country in which students in grade five through high school travel abroad, in trips that range from two to several weeks, during the school year and in summer academies. Coordinators are increasingly realizing the benefits for these students and developing programs that contain components of language learning, sight seeing, cultural experiences, and interactions with sister schools. 

This quote, written by a 5th grader in the International School of the Peninsula about her trip to Hangzhou, China, outlines some of these benefits:

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"Last year in fourth grade I went on an exchange trip to Hangzhou, China with my school. My host family had a girl named Yichen (or Amy in English) who was in 5th grade. I learned that I can live independently from my family, since this was my first trip so far from home by myself for almost two weeks. I also became much less shy about speaking Chinese. I felt excited to be able to use all the Chinese I learned in school to communicate with other people who only speak Chinese. I also now have a lot more confidence in my Chinese speaking."

Thoughtful Design
A well-designed program combines academic learning, socio-cultural experiences, sight seeing, and sometimes community service; careful planning; involvement of parents, students, and staff; and exciting assignments (such as capstone projects). All are essential ingredients for success. Here are some common characteristics and benefits of strong programs:

  • Students are immersed in the language and culture of the country. In well-designed programs, they have continuous and rich opportunities to interact with people in the country and thus develop cultural knowledge and language proficiency.
  • Students learn the importance of proficiency in the language for education and work.
  • They have an opportunity to see the world from a much broader perspective and experience themselves and others as global citizens.
  • They have opportunities to interact with people, not just as tourists, and to experience the critical importance of building relationships with people from other countries and cultures.
  • They develop a number of skills needed by global citizens, including problem-solving and analytical capabilities, tolerance for ambiguity, cross-cultural competence, empathy, and respect.

They come home with a deeper appreciation of their own language, cultures, and parents. When interacting with "others" and being treated as "others," their sense of self is enhanced. They also come to realize how fortunate they are as Americans, while also developing a deeper understanding of how the world works and interacts.

Challenges and Potential Solutions
At the same time, there can be significant challenges:

  • The cost of the study abroad experience may be a barrier to some students and their families. This can be particularly true for students in urban and rural areas. The need for scholarships or fundraising may become a challenge. On the other hand, a class can use fundraising for study abroad as a goal. They can make arts and crafts, bake cookies, or hold school dances to raise funds. When students work for their own trips, the trips become more meaningful and purposeful. This can also be an opportunity to teach lessons in business planning and project management at a young age.
  • Parent and staff involvement need to be managed and balanced, especially when some parents serve as chaperones. While it is important to involve parents, it is equally important to develop a clear plan for roles and responsibilities for staff and parent chaperones.
  • Safety and health concerns are sometimes stronger with students in elementary and middle school. It is important to develop guidelines and alternative plans for times when students become suddenly ill or homesick, suffer an unexpected injury, or are not behaving as expected.
  • Younger students often need more preparation for the trip to understand how to interact properly and effectively in the country and take it seriously as a learning experience. They need to understand that study abroad is not a vacation. Staff and chaperons may also need to be prepared to deal with students' home sickness because, for many students, this may be the first trip that they take away from home and their parents.

Eric Schneider, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction in Minnetonka Public Schools, MN, summarizes well the goals of a language study abroad program:

One of our current goals is to create a very unique experience for our older immersion students and to keep them highly engaged as they move toward high school ... As students get older, it gets more challenging for them to maintain their commitment to their target language, as other interests begin to compete for their time. In Minnetonka, we believe that the long-term and life-long rewards for students who maintain their commitment will be very high.

Find more resources for planning study abroad programs

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Photo credit: tanika84/istockphoto

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