School Way Outside the Chocolate Bubble

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By: Irene Ciocirlan

Fear and ignorance can hold you back.

Traveling abroad is an experience of a lifetime, but one that often makes high school students fearful. What countries can I travel to?  How will I pay for it?  What risks are there?  These questions hold back potential travelers from applying to travel abroad programs.  With a few simple steps the path from student to exchange student can be simplified.

Some Hershey High School students have already achieved this opportunity, like junior Caroline Sinz. Sinz spent her sophomore year in Barcelona, Spain. There are even foreign exchange students currently at HHS, like senior Nandy Loayza, who is originally from Bolivia.

Nandy Loayza, a foreign exchange student from Bolivia and a senior at HHS, poses for a picture in the cafeteria. She applied to be a student here in March of 2015.

Nandy Loayza, a foreign exchange student from Bolivia and a senior at HHS, poses for a picture in the cafeteria. She applied to be a student here in March of 2015.

Imagine going to a new school while also listening to a foreign country’s music, tasting their food, and participating in their culture. Students will come back and have a different mindset, have many interesting stories, and describe their experience in another country as life-changing. This opportunity can turn into a reality with the variety of exchange programs available today.

Students who want to get out of their comfort zone could just follow these steps for their path to success:

Step 1: Be a good student. 

It’s that simple. Loayza said she had to work really hard and get good grades to be accepted into her exchange program. She also had to take many tests. Sinz agreed, adding that she had to write an application online, fill out forms, and go to many interviews. The school also sent a transcript of her grades to the exchange program.

“The interviews were scary at first, but I knew that at the end it would all be worth it,” Sinz said.

Step 2: Learn the country’s official language.

Learning the country’s official language is helpful for students looking to apply to a country where English is not the official language. Sinz spoke Spanish the majority of the time with her host family, her friends at school, and anyone she encountered on the street. Sinz said that her Spanish skills have definitely improved, “By December of my year abroad, I could really start to understand what people were saying, and by February, I could communicate fluently with them.” She considers herself completely fluent in Spanish now.

Loayza, a native Spanish speaker, applied to be a foreign exchange student in the United States. She speaks her second language, English, all the time here. Loayza overcame the language barrier by learning English from watching movies and listening to music. She also suggests that students take a language class in or outside of school to sharpen their communication skills.

Step 3: Learn about different exchange programs and what they entail.

There are a variety exchange programs available today, such as Rotary, American Scandinavian Student Exchange (ASSE) , International Student Exchange Program (ISEP), American Field Service (AFS), and more. AFS has many countries to choose from, including France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Japan, and many more. Costs vary depending what country it is and what program the student is enrolled in.

Sinz went to Spain through AFS, and she said her year-long program cost around $15,000. “However, I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship, and there are many types of scholarships out there for students,” Sinz said.

There are also many different types of programs. According to the AFS website, summer programs costs range from $4,000 to $8,000. Semester or yearly programs cost from $14,000 to $15,000, both depending on where a student chooses to go. Loayza came to the U.S. through the exchange program Rotary, a program that promotes community service, intercultural peace, and appreciation. She said that it cost $4,000 for her year-long program.

Applying to an exchange program is usually the same process everywhere. First, make sure the school approves it and that the school’s administration sends the required forms and a copy of the students’ grades to the program. Next, visit the program’s website and fill out an application, wait for them to email back, and prepare for an interview with head members of the staff.

“My program Rotary required me to take two tests,” Loayza said, “one to test my English skills, and one to ensure that I’m healthy enough to go to a foreign country.”

Students that exchange through Rotary change homes and host families every 3 months or so, according to Loayza.

Step 4: Learn about the school system there and how it compares to HHS.

Get out of the comfort zone that is the American school system and be willing to go to a school where rules might be very different. In Spain, Sinz said that school hours were very different from HHS. They have four hours of school in the morning with a short break, and then they go home for lunch and a “siesta” for two hours and a half. A siesta is defined as a long nap, usually taken in the afternoon during the hottest hours. According to Sinz, having lunch followed by a siesta is a very important part of Spanish culture. Then, students would go back to school from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

“I liked this system because I didn’t have to wake up super early,” Sinz said, “and after school, I would go to the beach with my friends and stay there until the sun set, which is something I could never do at HHS.”

Caroline Sinz, currently an HHS junior, poses for a photo in the high school library on January 11th, 2016. Sinz reminisced about her school year abroad in Spain her sophomore year.

Caroline Sinz, currently an HHS junior, poses for a photo in the high school library on January 11th, 2016. Sinz reminisced about her school year abroad in Spain her sophomore year.

Sinz also said that the school system was slightly stricter. During class, students couldn’t use their phone or go to the bathroom. Loayza agreed, adding that in Bolivia she couldn’t eat while in class. “However, the whole atmosphere in Spain was much more relaxed, and I constantly miss it,” said Sinz.

Schools in Spain are either private or a mix of a public and private school. Private schools are where the students pay full tuition. Sinz went to a public private school, where students only pay half of the tuition. When looking where to go to school, make sure to be familiar with the schools and the costs involved.

Step 5: Learn about what medical requirements or immunizations are necessary depending on the country.

According to the Center of Disease Control’s website, vaccine-preventable diseases are rare in the United States, but some countries still carry them. Many developing countries still carry yellow fever, polio, and measles. To go to Bolivia, where Loayza is from, students would be required to get a vaccine. However, to go to Spain, Sinz did not have to get a vaccine. These risks depend on what country students choose to apply to.

The Center of Disease Control suggests to make an appointment with a doctor or a travel clinic four to six weeks prior to international travel. This allows time to complete any vaccines or routine vaccines, such as the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine, while building immunity in the human body. Also check if the country requires proof of immunization; like how the yellow fever vaccine is required for some countries.

According to the CDC, it is vital for a smart traveler to follow these tips to stay healthy in a country that carries diseases:

  • Be careful what you eat and drink – make sure to only eat and drink pasteurized dairy products
  • Only drink beverages that are bottled and do not use ice in drinks.
  • Use insect repellant at all times, especially in malaria risk areas.
  • Wash hands often.
  • Avoid touching animals.

Following these tips, talking to a doctor about vaccines, and planning ahead, students will be ready to go to a disease-carrying country and enjoy their time there.

Step 6: Once arriving to the country, have fun and enjoy the experience.

Many AFS exchange students have described their experience in one word: life-changing. Aspiring students will be able to experience a new school environment, eat foods outside their comfort zone, make new friends, discover new passions, and come home with many stories to tell. They might even become fully fluent in a second language, which is not a common trait among regular high-schoolers.

“Studying abroad was a challenging experience, as it pushed me outside my comfort zone,” Sinz said, “But it was definitely worth it, and I constantly miss Spain.”