The decision to study abroad is huge. The decision-making process is mind-boggling and complex. The list of practical and deeply personal concerns is overwhelming and exhausting, and there’s no shortage of voices providing advice and warnings. Most of them are helpful, and all of them do little to calm the growing anxiety for loving parents and impressionable children.
What we’ve found most helpful is to simplify your questions. The first step is to categorize your priorities, and then to prioritize your concerns. Choosing the right school, selecting where and with whom to live, and embracing cultural adjustments are three primary decisions that will impact a student’s education, socialization, and future success.
What’s the “Right” School?
Different cultures and families within a culture have unique criteria for choosing schools for their children. What’s common in one country or region may not hold true for another. Knowing your priorities when asking and answering questions is most important. We suggest that you start from the end and work your way back to the beginning when choosing a school. “What do I want to get out of the experience?” or, “Why am I doing this?” is the best place to start. If graduating from a top 50 college is your number one priority, then the high school that sends the highest percentage of graduates to those schools is your aim.
For others, the priority may be to minimize costs wherever possible. While frugality is virtuous, this exclusive approach can often be at the expense of other important categories like language development and cultural adjustment. Compromising too much in those (and other) areas can minimize opportunities to future success.
What About Host Family Living?
Few people will argue that the key to success in school is proficiency in communication. Students who decide to study abroad are best served when they arrive optimally prepared to communicate in the native language of the host culture. Despite best efforts at home, most students don’t.
The best tool for them to rapidly and effectively become proficient is immersion in the language and culture of communication in all environments. Students who spend immersion time at school and later find themselves immersed exclusively in their native tongue at home or with friends are at a painful disadvantage. For this reason, choosing host family living provides immeasurable advantages over living with family or expats.
Language is only a part of culture. Interacting with peers and casual acquaintances and persons of authority are integral components to optimal learning. Being able to learn through natural exchanges in these relationships gives students an advantage over those who prefer to rely on familial comforts. Students who don’t socialize enough with domestic peers or interact with host families may do well to meet some of their goals, but often find themselves out of balance and struggle to fully achieve desired progress.
Ready for New Life in the USA?
A child who is ready to leave home is ready to embrace a new one. International high school students need a lot of support when adjusting to their new life in the USA. They will naturally encounter many challenges and obstacles without even looking for them. Many of those will arrive unannounced; most will be uniquely American problems requiring American solutions. Being connected to a broad community of native support is the best way for a child to learn problem-solving skills on their way to becoming a mature, independent adult. This is a universal truth regardless of country or culture.
Home and school are the two places a child will spend the most time learning and socializing. Host families are trained to understand and respond to international student adjustments, and school programs are strong and committed to providing the support and guidance international students need –- especially in the first days, weeks, and months of the first year. Success in these two environments should be the primary concern of every parent planning to send their child to study in a foreign land. Students who are ready to engage and learn from socializing are ready to study abroad.
The child who most quickly and effectively adjusts to language and culture is best positioned to succeed in their short and long-term goals. Choosing the right environments that match their needs is the first and best step to preparing them for whatever challenges they will inevitably encounter. In the swirling seas of known and unknown variables, confidence that your child will be safe, supported, encouraged, and prepared to adapt is a priceless commodity.