Monday, November 28, 2011

Study Abroad as Dropout Prevention?

By Marta Bechtol

Due to her father’s transient profession, Mary attended eight different schools in six states before she reached high school.  She developed an impressive social awareness and adeptness at integrating herself into new environments and local cultures. She learned to work with teachers and navigate school curriculum, maintaining honor student status everywhere she went.  By the time she reached 8th grade, she’d had exposure to French, Spanish, German, and Japanese classes and had discovered that she possesses a natural ear for languages.

Mary began 8th grade as a new student in a middle school serving grades 6-8. She wished to continue her French studies but was informed by the counselor that because she had not attended that school for grades 6 and 7, she would not be admitted into the middle school language program. The district politely informed her that she could begin language instruction at Level 1 when she reached high school. There was no mechanism for language proficiency assessment other than completion of the district’s prescribed curriculum.

Realizing that she would be starting over (again), Mary scrutinized the high school language programs and settled on German because she’d learned that the teacher was a native speaker of the language. Mary excelled in the class and also enjoyed AP offerings in World and European History.  However, the lock-step of the school’s general graduation requirements along with her perceived intrusion on the permanent and tightly knit student body left her feeling out of touch with the world she knew beyond Wisconsin.  Although she’d never been a slacker, Mary found herself disengaged during the school day and ended up making some of what are politely described as “poor choices.”

After several trips to the guidance counselor, Mary went home and announced that she was through with school. How could this be? She had always been such a brilliant student and under such extraordinary circumstances year after year! What could be done?  Mary determined that she would only stay in school if she could move. Her father had recently retired though; that easy window had closed. She went to see her counselor again regarding study abroad programs. Unfortunately, the counselor was a new educator with limited knowledge of these opportunities.  She was unaware of anything outside of Rotary International, an option that was out of range of the family budget.

Mary learned about the Department of Public Instruction’s Hessen exchange through a parental connection; no student from her high school had participated in the program before.  She connected deeply with new German friends and continued to explore additional study abroad options on her own. While waiting to board the plane for Frankfurt, Mary completed an online application for the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). She was on a plane to Shanghai the week following her return from Germany.

Mary completed her basic graduation requirements and left high school at age 16. She is currently a junior in college majoring in both Mandarin and International Studies with a minor in German. She is enrolled this academic year at Peking University in Beijing, China. Had she not been able to identify study abroad programs that her family could afford, Mary would have simply wrapped up her secondary education as a drop-out statistic.

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