SYA: An Experience to Remember

        The 2014-2015 school year was certainly a memorable one for Westminster students. Between the football team’s exciting 13-10 win over Lovett, the initiation of JanTerm for the entire upper school, and Keith Evans’ inaugural year as headmaster of Westminster, it was a year of new horizons and adventures. But some students chose to apply to spend a year expanding their horizons through spending a School Year Abroad.

        School Year Abroad, more often nicknamed SYA, is a language immersion program. It offers students across the United States in grades 11 and 12 the opportunity to travel to different cities in either France, Spain, Italy, or China to spend a year attending classes taught in the country’s native language while living with the host family and getting a deeper experience in another place’s culture. Generally, most international campuses have somewhere near 70 exceptional students from the United States. Last year, six Westminster juniors, who are now seniors, set off on journeys thousands of miles from home to embark on an unforgettable eight-month-long adventure.

         However, spending a school year abroad isn’t a total escape from the academic rigor of junior year, as it still requires a diligent amount of studious focus. All classes are notably difficult and taught at an honors level, with students still required to take the same number of credits they typically would at home. All courses with the exception of Math and English are taught in the country’s native language in order to further improve the student’s ability to speak, read, write, and understand the culture and language of the country in which they are living. However, students are also given the choice to take interesting electives to fulfill Westminster credits while improving their language speaking skills.

         “I got to take a History of Art class in French,” said senior Kaitlyn Tice, who spent her junior year in Rennes, France. “My favorite class I took was definitely politics.”

         Six Westminster students embarked upon this opportunity last year, one of which was senior Luis Padilla, who, along with K. Tice, traveled to a town in northwestern France known as Rennes. As soon as he knew he wanted to apply for SYA, Luis said the decision of Rennes was obvious.

         “SYA gives you the opportunity to go to four schools, there’s one in France, Italy, Spain, and China, so I decided to go to the one in France because I took French here for five years before I went.”

           For senior Justin Tice, the choice to go to Zaragoza, Spain was also made clear by his studies in the language.

         “I’d always wanted to live abroad because I know people who did SYA years ago and because my mom was a teacher,” said Tice. “Also, I really wanted to become extremely proficient in another language for a ton of different reasons, such as for work reasons, personal reasons, lots of reasons.”

         The choice to do SYA isn’t always easy for students. You spend an entire eight months in a foreign country living in a homestay, thousands of miles from family and friends. However, some students like Padilla wanted to dive into another culture and language the way doing a School Year Abroad allows you to.

         “I wanted to learn another culture and another language. I just wanted to be more active,” said Padilla. “I already speak Spanish, and my parents are Mexican, so I was already balancing two cultures, but I really wanted to learn more about the French culture too.”

         Immersing yourself in another culture is always interesting, and often surprising, as some returning students recalled.

          “One day, I came home, and there was just the head of a cow wrapped in plastic, and my host mom was like oh, you want to try it?” said J. Tice. “And I said no, because it still had the eyes and everything. And my host dad just ate it; he was like ‘oh, the eye is the best part.’ And that was definitely a cultural shock. The food was pretty different.”

         In other countries, some cultural customs were interesting to recognize and adjust to.

        “In France, they don’t put the bread on their plates, they put it on the table,” said K. Tice, “And it’s considered offensive if you put the baguette on your plate, I don’t know why.”

          Though spending a school year abroad is a great way to broaden your horizons and get some time away to reevaluate your perspective, the return home after having spent so much time away can be a difficult transition.

          “Returning home was really weird just because I was living with a family there, and they became kind of like my parents, but not really,” said Padilla. “They couldn’t really tell you what to do, and then you had to come back and my parents were just like come here, you’re doing this, you’re doing that. And they want to know where you are every minute.”

          “It was really hard to re-adjust,” noted J. Tice. “Especially before coming to school, I hadn’t seen people in a long time, I forgot people’s names. And I did stupid things without realizing it, like, ‘Oh, you don’t do that in America.’ There’s definitely a different way to pass your time in Europe.”

          Overall, the students said that the part of the experience of living abroad that they gained the most from was their freedom and independence while in another country.

          “Afterwards, you look at every aspect of life in a different way, in a more global way,” said J. Tice. “You just kind of grow up really fast.”

         “I guess I just learned independence in general. You’re kind of thrown into this situation that’s so strange and you don’t really understand anything,” said K. Tice. “You’re forced to make it out on your own.”