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Foreign exchange: would you send your kid abroad for a year?

Categories: This is Supposed to Be Fun


Last September I had an epiphany. My then 14-year old son Nathaniel should go to school in France for a year! It would be awesome. It would change his life. Yay me for seeing into the future and knowing how everything will turn out. Crystal ball mom eyes. I phoned him to tell him what his next few years were going to be like.

“I was thinking. Maybe you’d be interested in being a foreign exchange student? Live in Europe or somewhere for a year?”

“Actually, I was just thinking of that.”

How cool is that? We think alike. YES.

So we started looking into it. There are several organizations that run exchange programs in a multitude of countries. They provide liaison services between countries, set up all the logistics, arrange for host families, and give support. It costs a pretty penny ($10K or so for a full school year), but the rewards are huge. I’ve talked to several adults who had a foreign exchange experiences, and they all said it was one of the best things they had ever done. Huge.

I suspect that Nathaniel will come back knowing himself in a way that he might not get to for years at home.

Feeling a little separation anxiety? I probably would be, too, if I didn’t already live 3000 miles from him. But I can just as easily Skype and Facebook to France as I can to Pennsylvania.

Known issues:

Language. Luckily, Nathaniel’s father has been speaking Americanized French to all the children since birth. No kidding! I have no idea why; he just did. Weird prescience? (He spent a year in France as a university student and seems enthusiastic toward the idea of Nathaniel following in his footsteps. “Best year of my life,” he put it.) And Nathaniel had five years of Waldorf school German and Spanish plus three more years of public school Spanish. If anyone is prepared to go immersion in another language, he is. So, check.

Little sister. She’s 11. They have a strong bond. She will miss him greatly. My wish is that she will discover a measure of independence that she cannot have with an older brother around. She will cook for herself more, take charge around the house more in a way that pleases her, spend more time with friends, expand her horizons past her brother-friend. Check?

What if he hates it? He will. At least, for a while. It will be, well, foreign. Duh. But I think that it wouldn’t take long before he loves it. Embraces it. Drinks it in. Check.

Being away, and then coming back. Re-entry will be challenging. Nathaniel will change in ways I can’t yet predict. Nor can he. I suspect that he may find “regular” high school a bit pedestrian upon his return, in which case we’ll examine the alternatives. Like moving on to college. Choosing a path and walking it. And he’ll be different around his friends as well. Those relationships will change. Everything will change. This is perhaps the biggest unknown, about moving back into life when he returns. Ch-ch-ch-check.

I am living vicariously through my child. No, this hasn’t escaped me. I wish my parents had sent me to Europe for a year. I wish I had followed through on plans with a friend to bike across England one summer. I wish someone would send me to Europe for a year NOW. I wish, I wish, I wish. But I can live through my child! Yay! Isn’t that what children are for? Hey, at least I own it. Check.

This isn’t a done deal yet by any stretch. Paperwork’s not done, money’s not sent. If not this fall, hopefully the next. But I can’t think of any bigger gift to give Nathaniel now that will serve him in the future the way this could.

Would you send your child abroad to study? Assuming finances weren’t an issue?

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3 comments so far...

  • I don’t know, I like having my daughters right here with me! However, that may change when they start getting hormonal . . . .

    I think it is a good opportunity, but I would probably only do it if my child were emotionally and socially mature for her age.

    SKL  |  February 9th, 2011 at 11:51 am

  • Absolutely! Going to Belgium my junior year in college was one of the best thing I ever did in my pre-real world work life. It taught me independence, an appreciation for other cultures, and it left me with fond memories and a desire to explore the world. I think every child should do a gap year or study abroad year to appreciate our world.

    Christina Schlachter, PhD  |  February 15th, 2011 at 12:32 am

  • If she wanted to we’d look into it. While she likes and has an ear for languages, she would struggle mightily with social issues. A friend of mine went the year AFTER she graduated high school and thought it great. She basically repeated a “senior year” but it didn’t affect grades/college choices etc. other than choosing schools that allowed a 1-year deferral. That might be a way for somone who wants to do it but isn’t ready early in high school.
    I regret mightily not doing an exchange in high school. I did a summer term abroad in college but not quite the same.

    Mich  |  February 15th, 2011 at 3:54 pm