Rotary Youth Exchange 101 ~ Preparing Academically

It’s been almost a year since I shared that J was spending her senior year abroad in Italy, and after the experience, we really can’t say enough about how fantastic the experience was for her. J is fluent in Italian, she was able to travel to multiple countries, she made friends from all over the world (her bestie is an Argentinian), and she’s conquered so many challenges that as she looks forward to starting college, she’s just plain excited, no need to feel anxious. We can’t possibly recommend the experience enough.

So! If you have a child or know a child who may be interested, I’m going to give you a bit more background on the process and preparation for a Rotary youth exchange. There’s definitely a lot of work to put in, just getting ready to go. But then you’re really not doing much of anything for that kid for the entire year, except asking them to send pictures of their adventures!

The Rotary Youth Exchange is for students ages 15 to 18. After talking to various people about their experiences, Cute W and I would really recommend it more for 17- and 18-year-olds than for younger kids. It’s just… a lot, and that little bit of extra maturity helps with their coping skills and decreases their propensity for being homesick. If you follow this advice, then depending on your student’s age/educational journey, you could plan for a junior year abroad, a senior year abroad, or a gap year.

There was so much preparation that I think it’s easiest to divide this into a few posts:

We had to scramble a bit because we didn’t plan ahead, but ideally, if your student wants to plan to study abroad before they graduate from high school, their best bet is to try to stack their academic schedule so that they can knock out some of their graduation requirements early. Specifically in New York State, that’s likely to mean taking the New York State required Social Studies Participation in Government/Economics classes and health class early, or any other classes they’ll need for graduation and might be tough to fulfill in a different country. For J, she supplemented her English and social studies credits by taking HVCC College in the High School classes last summer. Surprisingly enough, the toughest challenge, credit-wise, was her health class credits. By the time J left for Italy, the only two unfulfilled credits left were for gym and health. Her Italian school had physical education classes and she participated on a volleyball team, so that was not a problem. But there wasn’t anything similar to the NY State health curriculum in Italy, and when I looked for alternative classes, everything I found was really comprehensive, intense, and time-consuming. Which seemed ridiculous, because typical health classes in school are not particularly challenging or time-consuming. It seemed brutally unfair to make this kid who was already super-busy do hundreds of hours of work, much of it convincing kids not to make bad choices, when she was already someone who does yoga and makes herself salads and helps run the mental health awareness club. Lucky for her, that last job helped her out, because one of her advisors for the club is a health teacher who was willing to teach her the curriculum online so she could graduate.

The result was she basically audited her classes in Italy: she went to class and listened and learned, but she didn’t even take tests. For her, it made school a lot easier, and the only drawback is that sometimes her classmates couldn’t be social with her because they were studying for exams she didn’t have to take. But other kids, especially those who arrive more familiar with the language, could potentially take a bunch of classes that their home high school would accept for graduation. There’s almost always going to be an English class that they can take, for example. But even if the language isn’t a barrier, it’s likely that classes like math or science are not going to align perfectly with your home school’s levels. For us, we thought that eliminating academic pressure as much as possible would free J up to go on outings, be social, and explore in her free time.

What about college? Great question! College applications are another huge source of stress for high school students, and its not exactly easy to take care of all of that stuff from abroad. In our case, we wanted to complete as much of the application process as possible before J left for Italy. She had started casually looking at colleges with her older sister, but we did a lot of college visits during her junior year and last summer (after junior year, before Italy) and she decided to apply Early Decision to Smith College. By the time she left for her senior year in Italy, she had completed most of her application. She had to wait until she arrived in Italy to find out and report what her senior year classes were, and her application essay was talking about the trip, so she’d started it at home but concluded with a final paragraph after arriving in Italy. We were super-excited and relieved when she found out that she was accepted in December. Not only did she get her first-choice college, but she didn’t have to think about applications or write any additional essays, and she could focus on her time in Italy. These days, the Early Decision acceptance rates are so much higher than regular admission rates that it is kind of crazy. We were fortunate that both our daughters had a clear first choice college and that both of their top choices are committed to offering aid to make up the difference between what FAFSA says you can contribute and the total price.

If you have a student who would like to study abroad for their junior year, I think you could try to get them to come up with their list of favorite colleges before they leave, then plan to do last visits and the application itself during the summer after returning from their exchange year.

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