study-abroad-featureI was recently invited to the White House to attend the White House Travel Blogger Summit on Global Citizenship and Study Abroad. To say that this was an honour and the highlight of my year would be a gross understatement.

The invitation came as part of a US government initiative to zero in on travel bloggers and digital media influencers to help disseminate their message. The goal of the summit? To encourage American students to study, volunteer, and work abroad and to make these opportunities more accessible to a broader group of millennials.

On Tuesday, December 9, 130 bloggers and digital media influencers gathered in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to learn more about the government’s plans. We heard from an impressive and inspiring group of senior government officials, including:

•    Secretary Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce
•    Denis McDonough, Chief of Staff
•    Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting
•    Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff to the First Lady
•    Carrie Hessler-Radelet, Director of the Peace Corps
•    Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs
•    Jonathan Greenblatt, Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

With so many larger, more pressing issues facing the US government, both at home and abroad, it may seem curious that encouraging the country’s young people to study and work abroad is such a priority. But amidst all of the other national and international concerns, the Administration is taking a big picture view and thinking about the nation’s future. They’re focused on shaping a country of citizens that’s more culturally aware and sensitive, smarter, more experienced and more curious about the world around them. Surely, this can only be good for America.

Here’s how the White House sees it, according to their blog:

“By transforming interest in travel into study, volunteer, and work opportunities, the Administration seeks to significantly increase the number and diversity of young people participating in educational, cultural, and professional experiences internationally. Fundamentally, study abroad is about making an investment in the most capable, connected, and competitive workforce in the world.”

Currently, fewer than 10% of American students take part in study abroad programs and of those who do, 76% are white. By increasing and improving access to study abroad programs to a broader demographic, America aims to strengthen global relations by giving its people a global perspective, making them global citizens. To this end, the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs announced the creation of a U.S. Study Abroad Office. The office will help to facilitate study abroad for students across the country by promoting the benefits of study and work abroad experiences. They’ll also offer scholarships, recommendations and other guidelines to help create the positive experience that ultimately, will create that more “capable, connected, and competitive workforce.”

All of this makes perfect sense to me and I can understand why this is a good priority to have. But there are challenges as well, not the least of which is financial. Countless parents would love to give these opportunities to their children but can’t afford to do so. Many parents also struggle with the issue of safety; in today’s global climate, it’s not easy to send your child across the globe on a wing and a prayer when all you want to do is keep them safe at home. While many American families are struggling to get from one day to the next, or coping with issues within their own communities, sending their child to Italy to study for a month may, understandably, not be high on the list of priorities … if on the list at all. In order for the U.S. Study Abroad Office to be successful, these and many of the other issues facing Americans, will need to be addressed.

While I myself am a Canadian, the message that the current Administration is sending is a good one for young people, no matter where they’re from and over the course of the summit, I was reminded of my own study abroad experience.

I was 15 years old when I went to Nice, France to study French for one month. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, especially when you consider that it was one my parents could ill afford. But the benefits they saw for me outweighed the cost and all those sacrifices that parents make for their kids, were made for me.

1992: Our study abroad group wrapped up the experience with a weekend in Paris.
1992: Our study abroad group wrapped up the experience with a weekend in Paris.

I joined a group of about 25 other students. Two were from my high school. Many were from private schools. A handful was from the United States. We were a diverse group, coming from a variety of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds but we shared a love of learning, in particular, a love of French.

We attended Jean-Jacques Rousseau school in Nice, in the south of France. (I just did a Google search and can’t find the school … I wonder what happened?) It was a beautiful building that sat atop a high hill. The path leading up to it was steep and winding and opened up to a beautiful view.

We attended French classes Monday to Friday from 9am to 12pm.  Classes were followed by lunch and then we had free time to explore Nice, do our homework and try not to get into too much trouble (twenty-five 15-year-olds can find plenty of mischief!)

We were expected to speak French at all times and were reprimanded if any of our teachers heard us speaking English. This immersion program did just as its name suggested: Immersed us so deeply in the culture and language of the country we were in, that I soon found myself thinking in French. When I sat down to pen a letter to my parents back at home, every word came to me first in French, then English. And while that letter took me twice as long to write for that reason, I realized just how much I’d learned. And I loved it.

Studying abroad will have a different meaning and significance to different people but for me, it helped to shape me into the adult I have become. First and foremost, it helped me to come out of my shell. I was a quiet and introverted child but the experience of boarding a plane and traveling overseas with a group of strangers helped to unlock the more outgoing, sociable side of myself. I gained a sense of confidence and independence I hadn’t previously had. I met and interacted with so many different types of people and learned about new cultures, traditions and ways of life. I learned a new language more deeply and more meaningfully than I had in any classroom, which challenged and excited me. During that month-long experience, the world opened up to me and I came home changed. For the better. I am eternally grateful for the sacrifices my family made to afford me that opportunity.

To learn more about the White House Study Abroad initiative, visit the White House Blog. And join the conversation by following the #StudyAbroadBecause hashtag.

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