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From Their Seats to the World: High School Students Global Stories

Thursday, April 11, 2019  
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By 2018-2019 High School Task Force

Laurie Black - CET Academic Programs

Rebecca LeBlond - Democracy Prep Public Schools

Anna Stewart - American Councils for International Education




While the benefits of study abroad and international education experiences are well-documented in the realm of higher education, much less data exists to demonstrate the positive impact it may have on high school students. Anecdotally at least, students who participate in study abroad before enrolling in college or university identify myriad advantages gained as a result. As we share in the benefits section of this article, high school students experience a variety of personal and academic gains such as increased flexibility and tolerance, noticeable ease in the transition to higher education, and a greater inclination to study abroad again in the future. Yet, as in all areas of the field, there remain barriers, some of which are compounded by the fact that study abroad at the high school level is not yet as recognized and valued as it is among higher education institutions. Specifically, a lack of awareness, limited funding, and inconsistent support provide unique challenges to increasing access and impact at the high school level. Thus, we address some potential considerations and actionable items for what can happen next to increase participation among high school students to the benefit of everyone in the field.

Benefits of High School Study Abroad

Likely of interest to professionals in the field of higher education admissions and administration is that high school study abroad participants self-identify both as more prepared for the transition to college and as more focused in their direction and studies upon arrival to campus.

As Morgan, who participated in the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program in Moldova, points out, “my priorities were a bit more complex in regards to what I wanted from my university. I wanted to attend a university with a diverse community culture-wise and in particular one with a strong linguistics program. Honestly, it has made the transition almost ridiculously easy.” Similarly, another NSLI-Y alumnus, Philip, emphasized the impact the experience had on his college search and field of study. “My study abroad experience has definitely influenced my selection process for applying to college, as now I am looking for colleges with great study abroad programs and also great Chinese programs. The experience I had in China has made me seriously consider majoring in Chinese along with my initial major in international affairs.”

Students who are exposed to a study abroad opportunity in high school may also be more likely to participate in programs during and/or after their years as an undergraduate. John, another NSLI-Y participant described his experience in Russia as life-changing, stating that  “if it weren’t for the program I would not be on the path that I am today. I would not have studied Russian in college and I would not currently be a Fulbright Scholar.” Similarly, Irving Perez, who traveled abroad to South Korea in high school as part of Democracy Prep’s Global Citizens Program, emphasized how his experience “led to the increased drive to want to go study abroad while I am in college and experience the education system in a different nation on a different continent. As a result, I [spent] my 2018 summer studying abroad in the Scandinavian country [of] Denmark studying Behavioral Economics and Microeconomic Theory while also learning so much about the culture and daily life of the Danish people…. Just having the opportunity to have come to Denmark would have never been possible or feasible if it were not for the early introduction to travel in high school.”

Despite the shortage of quantitative information on high school study abroad on a macro scale, several distinct organizations have been able to measure some of the impacts of their specific programming. For example, a 2018 survey of NSLI-Y alumni included the following significant points:

  • 99% reported that NSLI-Y was the most or one of the most educational experiences in their lifetime, acknowledging the profound learning gains of study abroad.

  • 82% continued language study

  • 86% reported improved study skills as a result of NSLI-Y

  • 94% currently enrolled in high school or university reported that NSLI-Y informed their academic course selection, broadened their understanding of academic options, and increased academic motivation to some or a great extent.

Additionally, District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) Study Abroad program alums demonstrated significant achievement in pursuit of college admissions, specifically:

  • 87% complete the FAFSA

  • 98% completed the SATs, with a 1030 average

  • Averaged 4.7 college acceptances (above the district average of 2.9)

Similarly, among Democracy Prep’s 2018 senior classes, there was a positive correlation between traveling abroad and average college acceptances. Specifically, the average college acceptance rate was 38 percent for those who did not travel abroad versus 48 percent for those who did. When accounting for the range in total applications, students who traveled abroad had, on average, a 10-percent higher average acceptance rate than their peers who did not travel abroad.

Finally, The Experiment in International Living (EIL) surveyed respondents who participated in programs over a 72 year time period and the data gathered demonstrates the significant value those individuals place on the impact of their experiences on a variety of skills.

  • 89% of respondents indicated their self-confidence was positively increased ‘to a large extent’ or ‘to some extent.’

  • 73% percent of respondents indicated their experience influenced their academic trajectory ‘to a large extent’ or ‘to some extent.’

  • Survey respondents reported that their ability to see their own country through the lens of another culture was profoundly impacted with 91% of respondents reporting this occurred ‘to a large extent’ or ‘to some extent’ as a result of their program.

Clearly, while data on a national scale remains elusive, the impact of even short-term high school study abroad programs cannot be underestimated.

Barriers to High School Study Abroad

Despite these notable benefits, significant barriers remain for students who want to pursue study abroad opportunities during high school or as a gap year prior to enrolling in a college or university. These barriers and issues of accessibility are not new to those in the field of international education, but it is worth noting how these challenges strongly parallel those that are being faced in study abroad at the higher education level. Not unlike their counterparts in universities, the general lack of awareness and the cost of participating in study abroad programs were some of the most commonly cited barriers among high school alumni surveyed. Morgan, the participant of the Department of State’s NSLI-Y program, stressed that “awareness of study abroad programs is hands down the largest barrier to take hold of these opportunities.” She believes “that people do not realize the magnitude of amazing experiences that are available.” Global studies offices or study abroad fairs do exist at secondary school institutions, but they are farther and fewer between when compared to those hosted by higher education institutions. Funding opportunities and scholarships do exist but they can be competitive, vary by school system or district, and are often spread by word of mouth or search engines. Very rarely is there a study abroad advisor or financial aid office at the high school level that exists or is equipped to help navigate students through this process. Consequently, access points and knowledge of study abroad continue to be limited at the high school level.

Additionally, participants in these high school programs are generally under the age of 18 or have only recently turned 18. This means that their parents and guardians naturally become major stakeholders in a study abroad experience because of the student’s status as a minor. Garnering support from a parent or guardian, their school and even their own community is a challenge a number of alumni mentioned. John, another alumnus of the NSLI-Y program, stated that “growing up in the African-American community, [he] always encountered family, friends or acquaintances who were afraid to go abroad because they were afraid of how blackness might be received in another country.” John recognized that “these are definitely valid concerns and should not be taken lightly if one wants to live in a foreign country for an extended period of time, but for all areas of the world (especially the more homogenous countries) to see the diversity of peoples that America views as one of its greatest strengths, it is important for minority students to study abroad and open not only the minds of foreign citizens but their own minds as well.”

High school students and their parents or legal guardians must be adequately prepared for the study abroad experience. This is not only a professional responsibility but a question of ethics for international education professionals. When working with high school student populations, securing the trust and support of a student’s family is not only helpful, it is mandatory for the success of the student. Legal guardians and support networks must be involved in honest conversations surrounding health and safety and how studying abroad as an American with an underrepresented identity can be especially challenging. Clearly, the rewards for studying abroad as a diverse American high school student can be great, but so can the risks.

The challenges of studying abroad in high school are not new or unique to those who have worked with diverse student populations at universities; however, they are intensified by the high school study abroad vacuum. Resources and personal narratives are not as visible for those brave high school students who seek to jumpstart their global awareness and for their families and support networks at home. While studying abroad in college is slowly losing its status as being a luxury, it is still very much considered as such for high school students. The benefits and rewards of studying abroad in high school, and the strong pipeline of diverse students it is creating, often go unrecognized.

Moving Forward

Most international education professionals likely agree both of the importance of global awareness from an early age and that participation in education abroad at any level should mirror the composition of the US population. How then should the field focus its advocacy to increase participation rates and diversity of study abroad at the high school level? We propose that the emphasis should be twofold:

  1. Organize data collection at a national level. Individual program surveys provide an interesting snapshot, but not a broader perspective. The field needs Open Doors-like information for high school education abroad to help guide direction and strategies for further increasing access.

  2. Develop robust funding opportunities that provide access to a range of programs. Fully-funded opportunities and program scholarships are severely limited. Gilman Scholarship-like funding for high school education abroad would serve to greatly advance opportunities.

In order to accomplish these goals, international educators working at the secondary level require support and collaboration from colleagues at colleges and universities who can make it clear how much they value study abroad experience in high school. It’s not just about making the numbers look good - together, we have a moral and ethical obligation to create equal opportunity in education abroad. While there have been admirable efforts to increase diversity in study abroad in higher education over the last few decades, the needle has not moved significantly. It’s time to try something new - feeding the pipeline with diverse students who already have international experience may very well be the answer. Those who have studied abroad once are more likely to do it again during college. Let’s work together to make this pipeline a reality.



NSLI-Y is a program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by American Councils for International Education in cooperation with other partner organizations. NSLI-Y provides merit-based scholarships for eligible high school students and recent high school graduates to learn less commonly taught languages in summer and academic-year overseas immersion programs.