Young globetrotters: High school students experience new cultures while studying abroad

Mina Yuan and her host family
Yuan poses for a photo with her host family on their last day together.
(Submitted photo)

Last summer, Mina Yuan traveled on the subway in South Korea for two hours to get to Seoul, the capital city near the North Korean border. She shopped and hung out with friends before returning home to her host family.

A rising senior at Wayzata High School at the time, Yuan studied abroad in Songdo, South Korea, through National Security Language

Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. NSLI-Y sponsors students to spend six weeks during the summer or a school year in another country to learn new languages and experience other cultures.

Yuan is one of many high school students across the country who has studied abroad to travel and experience the world at a younger age than most. More than 5,000 students will have completed a NSLI-Y program alone by the end of the 2016-17 program year, according to the organization’s website.

Yuan said she learned the importance of studying abroad while “living in Korea, not only seeing the American perspectives of things, but also seeing the Korean perspective and seeing how that different lens of a different culture really affects everything.”

“Also [studying abroad] cultivates a kind of independence in you that you really don’t experience anywhere else,” Yuan said.

In South Korea, Yuan learned about the country’s economic and public health systems, which are two topics she plans to study in college.

“When you are in Korea, if you throw your trash in the wrong bin, a random old lady will come and yell at you because they are all very passionate about keeping their country clean,” Yuan said. “They are a very collectivist culture, instead of the U.S., which is a lot more individualistic.”

Yuan also saw into North Korea from the Korean Demilitarized Zone (but said she was disappointed at how much it has turned into a tourist attraction). She also got to attend a music festival where she got to see Kpop groups perform and film a pre-recording music show at Inkigayo, a South Korean music program.

Yuan went to South Korea knowing only two sentences of Korean and having to meet new peers and new teachers. But the experience helped her grow, she said.

“In terms of personal growth, I became bolder and less afraid to try new things,” Yuan said.

According to Lisa Merposha, a program associate for NSLI-Y, students travel abroad with 20 to 30 other students from the United States and also travel with a resident director to help assist with any issues. Merposha said NSLI-Y prepares the students for what to expect when they go to another country.

“We work in close coordination with the U.S. embassies and consulates in the countries’ communities,” Merposha said, “and also we provide in-depth orientations for the students to get an idea of how to go about living in that country and what … some security and safety concerns could be and how to avoid them.”

NSLI-Y reaches a wide variety of students by advocating its programs through educators and community organizations, according to Merposha.

Different programs require students to cover varying portions of program fees. Depending on the organization, students may be responsible for all, part or none of the expenses of a trip.

Faith Adeola, a senior at the University of St. Thomas majoring in biology and global health, received a scholarship to study abroad for two weeks in England and Italy during her junior year of college. She decided to study abroad when she discovered her department was offering a class called “The History of Medicine” overseas, she said.

Adeola doubts she would have been ready for the experience as a high school student.

“I wouldn’t have been as mature,” Adeola said. “I would have been focused on too many of the big-picture things instead of learning about the culture and being immersed in it. … I wouldn’t have liked being away from home for that long. That would have been more scary.”

Emily Doss in Cape Town, South Africa holding up a sign that says, "Elevate."
Emily Doss, a senior at St. Louis Park High School, holds up a sign with a friend during her study abroad stay last spring in Cape Town, South Africa.
(Submitted photo)

Emily Doss, a senior at St. Louis Park High School, decided to study abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, during her second semester of junior year. Unlike Yuan, Doss paid for her trip by working long hours as a lifeguard during the summer before her junior year.

Doss experienced South Africa’s mountains on the beach and its nine-month drought season. She said the trip was like a holiday, a nice break from school and work in Minnesota. South Africa also enlightened her more than she could have possibly imagined, she said.

“It was honestly the best … learning experiences I have ever had,” Doss said. “I got to experience a completely new culture.”

Along with the long-lasting relationships with her host family and other friends, Doss says she gained more maturity and a better understanding of the world after living in South Africa for six months.

“I have matured a lot and I know how other places in the world are, because I lived there,” she said. “It helped me in my developing process to becoming an adult.”

Taking all of the memories and experiences she has learned into account, Doss urges students to study abroad, whether it be in high school or college.

“Don’t let fear keep you from [traveling abroad] because it is the best experience you could ever give yourself,” she said. “If you want to do something different with your high school experience, or even if you are looking to study abroad in college, I recommend it.”