SYA allows students to create global friendships


At the beginning of August last year, most of the students at Westminster were meeting new teachers, getting used to new classrooms, and settling into the school year routine. For a few students, new teachers were not their biggest worry; these few had to become acquainted with an entirely different country.

School Year Abroad (SYA) is a yearlong program that sends students from Westminster to schools in France, Spain, Italy, or China. The students are immersed in another culture for the entire year, staying with host families from their respective countries. This unique program lasts nine months and is open to anyone going into their junior or senior year of high school. Students on SYA go to school with other SYA students during the day but stay with host families for the rest of the time. Many might wonder why anyone would want to be away from their families and country for nine months. Former SYA students, who have finally returned for the2016-2017 school year, offered some insight into their experiences.

“It was appealing in the sense that it was an alteration from my day-to-day life” said senior Jolisa Brown, who went on SYA in France last year.

“It was something different from what I had always known. “Senior Liv Combest, who went on SYA last year in Spain, shared similar excitement about SYA.

“I felt like I was getting stuck in the same rut everyday,” said Combest. “Then reading about SYA and hearing[my friend] talk about it sounded like it was a really cool experience. “Combest encouraged any student who has a desire to learn more about their world than just within the confines of Westminster to go on School Year Abroad.

As with anything, beginning SYA is the most difficult part. Students are nervous to meet their host families; they do not know what to expect, and they have not mastered the language at the beginning. The apprehension goes both ways. Host families also become nervous about meeting their foreign student.

“I was nervous,” said Combest, “but also excited!”

Brown describes the program as “starting over in a lot of ways.” Both of the students managed to work through some initial anxieties and experience a truly eye-opening cultural immersion abroad. The trip, however, was not all fun and games. The students were expected to learn at a foreign school for the whole school year. A significant aspect of the SYA program is learning at school in the language of the host country, a motivating challenge that the students on the program enjoy. All of the teachers, except English and math teachers, are native to the host country. Having most of the classes in a foreign language quickly allows students to become adept at speaking and understanding the language. Dr. Estefania Olid, the head coordinator of SYA at Westminster, recalled how well three past SYA students learned Spanish after being in Spain for only three months.

“Most of [the students] spoke fluently by November,” said Olid.“You have no choice but to speak in the language.” For example, Combest took and passed a fluency test toward the end of the school year, and speaks just like a native Spanish speaker. In addition to taking the core classes necessary to graduate, students on the program can take a few completely different courses geared toward their specific interests.

“I was taking history of Spain through cinema,” said Combest. “It was a really cool class.

“The classes, however, did not make the experience special by themselves. The schools were set up for students from abroad, which led to lots of bonding between classmates from all around the world.

“Everyone got along together so, so well,” said Brown. “Initial engagement in the community was kind of difficult, so we compensated for that by looking out for one another.

“The entire academic part of the trip was very satisfactory for both Combest and Brown. Through learning in different classes and languages and bonding with other classmates, students on SYA are kept very busy throughout the day. In addition to school, another major part of SYA is staying with a host family, which the student lives with for nine months.

Important relationships are made between the host family and student that last well beyond the trip. Some even stay in touch with each other via online communication. Brown emphasized how supportive and kindhearted her host family was, and Combest often referred to the children in her host family as her “brother” and “sister,” and she still keeps up with them. Overall, SYA was a huge success with the students who participated last year, receiving glowing recommendations from both former SYA students.

“I would recommend [SYA] to anybody and everybody,” said Brown. “Go now, today, if you can.”

Combest had similar feelings about the program and stresses the value of relationships on the trip.

“[In Spain,] I met my best friend in the entire world,” said Combest. “I never thought I could connect with somebody in that way.”

If interested in this experience, students must first talk to Dr. Olid, who is currently looking for applicants. The general application deadline for SYA is not until Feb.15, 2017. Financial aid is available to apply for.

Any sophomores or juniors interested in applying are encouraged to talk with previous SYA students to learn more about their experiences with their amazing trips.