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Students take advantage of study abroad opportunities in high school

Abigail Goldberg and Katie Goldenberg

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In her last four days studying abroad in Tel Aviv, Israel at Alexander Muss High School, Anabel Henick (12) embarked on a four-day hike across the country, carrying a small bottle of ocean water from the Mediterranean and then dumping it into the opposite coast.

“The idea that we bring something from the Mediterranean and pour it somewhere else, it always reminds me that I’m bringing part of what I learned from Israel back to America, and I’m teaching all my friends about my experiences,” Henick said.

Henick is one of a small group of students at the school who have opted to spend time, ranging from a year to a semester, during their four years within the Upper Division. While abroad, students confront a range of unique social and academic experiences and adjustments, as well as the task of navigating the college process away from home.

WHY STUDY ABROAD?

Julia Hornstein (11), who currently studies at the Mountain School, a boarding school and working farm in rural Vermont, decided to spend a semester abroad because she had studied at Horace Mann all of her life and was ready for a change in scenery, she said.

“I have lived in the city my whole life, but I actually really like the outdoors and hiking so I thought that this would be a really great experience. I used to go to camp, which I loved so much, so I thought this could be an opportunity to reconnect with that side of myself,” Hornstein said.

Ruby Wertheimer (12), who spent her junior year with the School Year Abroad (SYA) program in Rennes, France, also wanted to spend time in a new environment having attended Horace Mann her whole life and thought studying abroad would be a unique experience. Wertheimer’s French roots and her knowledge of the language also impacted her decision, she said.

Abby Kanter (11), who is also studying abroad in Rennes, France, explained that Wertheimer’s experience had inspired her to do the same program.

Henick, who spent a semester abroad in Israel during her junior year, desired a new schooling atmosphere, especially prior to the start of the college process, as well as the opportunity to explore her Jewish identity, she said.

At first, Wertheimer experienced some hesitation despite support from her parents. “I was a little scared, because I didn’t think I knew French well enough and I didn’t think I was independent enough to live in a different country with a random family, with kids I didn’t know. It was a big mystery to me,” she said.

Henick explored several different options before deciding on Alexander Muss High School, a decision that was impacted by her parents’ high regard for the program and support for her travels, she said.

After embarking on the SYA program, Wertheimer’s hesitation faded, and she was able to take advantage of the many cultural opportunities studying in France offered, she said.

During her time at the program, for example, Wertheimer was able to watch the election in the United States from France and discuss her thoughts with her host family and friends, as well as discuss the French elections with her American friends, she said.

SOCIAL EXPERIENCE

The social environments of semester or study abroad programs often vary greatly from social experiences at the school.

Kanter has become very close to everyone on her program through their shared love for French, she said. “It is just nice being with people who have something in common,” she said.

According to Hornstein, the small number of students at the Mountain School has forced everyone in the program to develop closer relationships.

Henick had to adapt to a different social scene, as the geographic diversity of the students at the program forced her to enter the program with no prior relationships and spend the first few weeks of her time abroad developing new friendships, she said.

“It was a really difficult time,” Henick said. “It was really hard to talk to students, who I found out I had so much in common with, but it took a while because they weren’t from the tri-state area, they didn’t go to private schools, and they just had really different backgrounds.”

However, over the time Henick spent on the program, she formed close relationships with the other students, who became a “tight-knit group” that spent most of their time together, she said.

Wertheimer attended classes with only American students from the program but spent lunch periods at a local French school and had a mix of friendships, she said. She would spend her free time with friends exploring the town or taking weekend trips, she said.

Living with a host family allowed Wertheimer to not only learn the language but also to develop new relationships more quickly, as her host sister introduced her to many of her school friends, she said.

“A family will expose you to things a college roommate might not, like culture and the lifestyle of the country; it’s a very different and probably a more valuable and richer experience,” he said.

Spending time abroad restricted contact with friends back home for Henick due to the time difference between Israel and the United States as well as the limits to data plan usage in a foreign country, she said.

Wertheimer also experienced this difficulty, as FaceTiming her friends required her to stay up late at night just to talk, she said.

ACADEMIC EXPERIENCE

Similarly to social differences, the academic environment in various study abroad programs varies greatly from the environment of the school.

According to Oxelson, the weight of grades and credits received for courses in study abroad experiences vary depending on the program. However, colleges view high school credit in the context of the school, and thus readers look at grades abroad in their own context and separately from Horace Mann grades, he said.

Kanter felt that while the actual classes were less challenging, “what makes it hard is that it is in a different language,” she said.

Much of Wertheimer’s workload consisted of essay-writing and larger projects, as well as finals at the end of the year and a proficiency exam designed to measure her progress in the French language after the program, she said. Most students did not have access to or use tutors while attending the program, she said.

Henick did not experience a large shift in academic rigor while in Israel, with the exception of having to take finals, she said. She took many of the same classes as she would have at the school, substituting Spanish for Hebrew and taking a required Jewish history class, she said.

“[In the class] we took field trips at least once a week, and it really taught me about Jewish history and pride instead of just memorizing prayers,” Henick said. “Even though Horace Mann has a lot of Jewish students, I learned so much about my identity there, and now I speak out about things that make me uncomfortable, like anti-semitic comments.”

For Hornstein, classes are often held as late as 6:00 p.m., and from 6:45 to 9:00 p.m. she must complete her work in the academic buildings because the dorms don’t have WiFi, she said. “This has taught me how to manage my time super well so that while I have WiFi I can complete all of my homework,” she said.

In addition, being on a farm has contributed to a more hands-on type of learning, Hornstein said. For example, in her environmental science class, instead of having a test, students have to choose a place in the woods and study its history. For their final, they have to take their science teacher to the spot that they chose to study and explain what they learned about the land through their own observations, Hornstein said.

While the program has been amazing, it has also “been really hectic because every day you are expected to not only do all of the school work, which is really demanding, but also keep up with the work program,” she said.

The work program includes chores like cutting down trees, feeding rams, or cleaning the classrooms, Hornstein said.

The packed schedule has taught Hornstein to trust herself more, she said. “Because the program is so demanding, you need to be really confident in your ability to get through the day,” she said.

COLLEGE

According to Oxelson, colleges look highly upon students who choose to study abroad in high school because many of the traits students develop during the programs they attend will contribute to their college experience.

“It shows that they’re willing to try something different, that they have a level of independence that most high school students probably don’t have, and that they can quickly adapt to new surroundings that are really different,” he said. “In a way, you’re proving that you have all of this before college.”

However, students who choose to study abroad often face the challenge of navigating the college process while in a foreign country or apart from their families, tutors, and college counselors.

During Wertheimer’s time in France, she was able to Skype her college counselor and did not feel a loss in terms of one-on-one meetings, but was not able to attend any of the school’s college nights, she said.

“I would’ve thought I would’ve felt more confused coming into Horace Mann as a senior, but when I came back from France my college counselor was really good at giving me all the information I needed,” Wertheimer said.

“I think the school has done a really good job of making me feel okay being away from Horace Mann during the college process. I am able to email my counselor all of the time and FaceTime him for meetings,” Hornstein said.

However, living apart from the school environment has created pressure in limiting in-person contact with her counselor, Hornstein said.

“Since it is junior spring, I have been thinking about the college process a lot and not being there to meet with my college counselor in person has been kind of stressful,” Hornstein said.

For Henick, the most challenging aspect was visiting all the colleges she was interested in, as her semester in Israel removed much of the time she would have used for tours, she said. As a result, she was forced to tour all the colleges she wanted to see over the summer, she said.

Kanter explained that she has prioritized absorbing her experience in France over worrying about the college process. “I am really focused on living in France and everything going on here, so I haven’t been focused on college as much.”

The process of standardized testing was one factor Wertheimer had to consider while in France, she said. Since the SYA program provided little notice and preparation for the ACT and SAT exams, she opted to retake the test after returning to the United States, she said.

“Standardized testing wasn’t even on my mind while I was there,” Wertheimer said.

Henick also did not put a focus on standardized testing while abroad, she said. “I wanted to focus on a personal and emotional experience that would help me grow,” she said.

While some students at the school take the day before the SAT or ACT to stay at home and rest, Hornstein was out in the pouring rain splitting wood in the Vermont forests, she said.

“At Horace Mann, if you are not feeling 100 percent, you can stay home and rest the day before the test, but here you can’t do that,” Hornstein said. “It was kind of stressful because I had to keep up with all of the work throughout the week.”

“It turned out to be okay because the Mountain School does a great job providing us with college counselors. It is great not only for me, but for kids who don’t have access to college counseling at their school back home,” Hornstein said.

“I think it’s just the coolest opportunity, and I would advise everyone to go abroad because it’s so cool to live in a different culture and meet people you would never meet,” Wertheimer said. “It really opens your eyes to things going on in the world.”

“I don’t think there’s any question that studying abroad makes students more worldly and more open to other possibilities and differences,” Oxelson said.

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Students take advantage of study abroad opportunities in high school