October 25, 2012

A Father Sends His High-Schooler Abroad for First Time

Our son, Grant, has had two opportunities to participate in exchange trips through the Department of State. He was 14 years old when he was granted his first two-week mini exchange trip to China. This was the perfect opportunity for him to experience an exchange, but we did have a few concerns at first.

Staying Connected
Traveling half-way around the world to a non-English speaking country, would we be able to speak to him? What would the host family be like? How much money should we send with him? Those concerns were quickly put to rest. It became evident right away that the State Department handles these types of trips with kids frequently through the use of private agencies, which specialize in exchanges. We were able to keep in contact with Grant everyday through Skype. We looked forward to Skyping with him every morning and evening. It put us at ease to see his smiling face, talking about his adventures while showing us the purchases he made while bargaining in Chinese. He even showed us pictures and videos from his camera. He loved every minute of his first trip. He came home from his exchange excited and ready to do it again, and we had no worries when he was accepted for the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) scholarship to China for the summer of 2010.

Pre-Departure Details
The State Department uses various agencies to handle the details of the exchanges. Grant went to Beijing with one such agency. They are responsible for sending thousands of kids on exchanges around the world. The agency was in constant contact with us prior to the trip. He had numerous teleconferences several months prior to departure. The conferences dealt with the expectations of an exchange student. He was required to attend a local meeting with other exchange students -- both foreign and domestic -- in our area. He was given a large amount of reading material to prepare himself for the trip. He traveled from Nebraska to New York City on his own. While in NYC, he met up with 49 kids for a three-day-long gateway orientation before traveling to China. The gateway orientation gave the kids going to China the opportunity to meet. They had two days of instructions in NYC on how to be a better exchange student. After arriving in Beijing, the kids were separated into different groups depending on their language ability. Each group went to a different city in China. We had less concerns for the NSLI-Y trip since he would be traveling with a group of kids and chaperones on this trip. Grant had little experience with the language but he was put into an intermediate group due to his experience in China the prior year. Many of the kids had no experience with the language.

The Exchange Experience
His host family lived near the 5th ring road in Beijing. It took him a little more than an hour to commute to school each day. The host family drove him by car to a bus station where he took a bus to the subway and then walked the rest of the way to the school. The family Grant stayed with did not have Internet access in their home so we were not able to Skype with him on this trip. Our only contact with him was during his lunch time when he had access to a computer at the school.

We did not have much worry about Grant traveling through the airports on his own, since he has traveled by himself in the past. While in Beijing he did not have any trouble commuting through the city by himself. All students were given cell phones while in China for local use only. Some kids bought international phone cards to use with their phones.

Another question that plagued Grant for the month leading up to the trip was what to take for host family gifts? He brought T-shirts from our home state, photo frames and coffee table books of the United States and our home state. He learned from his first trip to pack less clothing. This allowed him to buy clothes while he was in China. This was a great way to go to the markets to bargain and to save space in his luggage.

Final Thoughts
We believe everything about this program was well planned. No details were left out. The agencies have done this sort of thing for many years. The NSLI-Y program is a great opportunity for kids to learn, grow and gain a mutual understanding of people from another part of the world. The opportunity to experience another culture firsthand, by living with a native family is a chance of a lifetime. I would recommend this program to any mature high school student who has a desire to learn a new language and explore a culture.

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