Given the choice between ordinary high school fare -- sports, driver's ed, SATs, college applications, prom -- and the extraordinary opportunity to study abroad for a year, master a language, experience independence and become a global citizen, there's no question which route most American teens would choose.
Slight hyperbole, but only slight. New figures confirm that we are creating a generation of homebodies. Sure they're interested in how the rest of the world lives, as long as they can observe the goings-on from their iPads.
How dire is it?
More than 28,000 exchange students from around the world studied in American high schools during the 2009-10 academic year, reports the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Standards for International Educational Travel.
American students going abroad the same year: 1,980. That's the lowest number in seven years.
"It's been an incredibly lopsided comparison," said John Hishmeh, executive director of CSIET (getstarted.csiet.org), a not-for-profit that monitors international programs for high school youth.
Moms and Dads, one program director even called our kids ... soft.
Sure, they're traveling. They're off to Europe, Mexico or South America with their families, or serving on admirable mission trips, or spending a few weeks with the French club in Provence. All good. Just not the whole enchilada.
"The yearlong high school programs are unique because the goal of that student is to become a Thai teen or a German teen or a Colombian teen," said Lynn Keillor, district chair of Minneapolis-based North Star Rotary Youth Exchange (www.northstaryouthex change.com). "Peace Corps, service trips, or even ex-pats typically are outside looking in. The high school exchange is inside looking out. When our kids come home, they identify with their host cultures so greatly that they talk in the 'we' sense about their host."
Neil Routman, spokesman for Youth For Understanding USA, (www.yfu-usa.org), also in Washington, D.C., agrees. "American students are at their best when they are thoughtful, creative, and understand the world around them. There's no better catalyst to encourage these traits than an international, high school exchange experience."
Exchange programs are scrambling to get that message out. A few are giving up. The 45-year-old EF Foundation for Foreign Study in Cambridge, Mass., shut down its outbound High School Year Abroad Program three years ago. "Difficult to find student interest," said spokesman Jason Daily. EF still offers study abroad options though its International Language Centers, Daily said.
What's up with our kids? Post-9/11 jitters play a role in the decline, experts say, as does the economy. But while some for-profit exchanges are cost-prohibitive in these times, many nonprofits are unbelievable bargains. Rotary's Youth Exchange charges as little as $5,200 for the academic year, airfare included. YFU-USA offers 10-month options at well under $10,000, as well as 300 scholarships, some of them full-rides.
The biggest roadblock, sadly, is fear of a different sort -- of "missing out" on social events, as well as extracurriculars needed to add heft to college applications. "It's just not a rite of passage for most American kids," Routman said.
"They're so afraid to miss that year," Daily added. "Parents tell us, 'This is their only four years of high school. If they go abroad, they'll look back with regret.'"
Even gap-year programs, in which students take time off between high school and college, are suspect. One bright spot: International exchange programs love Minnesota, which is among tops for sending students abroad as well as hosting students from Brazil to Bosnia.
At a recent gathering in Northfield, students came to learn about the Rotary youth exchange, or to say thank you. "Students often say it's the best year of their lives," said Youth Exchange officer Vicki Dilley. "They have a new passion for a different part of the world. The experience sets them off into a course of study."
Some students report that colleges want them more, not less, after they've taken a year to breathe, mature and expand horizons.
Alyssa Mitchell, 21, traveled to Germany the summer after her sophomore year at Red Wing High School. Bitten by the travel bug, she took a gap year after graduation and went with Rotary to St. Petersburg, Russia. "Amazing," she said of the experience, living with a host family in a small flat, attending high school, visiting museums and letting fifth-graders coach her in Russian, a language she had never studied.
"Gaining the perspective of someone from another place is something I never would have accomplished, had I not been immersed directly in the culture," said Mitchell, who was in Russia during its presidential election. "It's huge."
She limited calls to her parents to once or twice a month. "I wanted to stay in touch, but not still live here," she said.
"The thinking here is, you've got to finish high school, go to college, get a job, get married, get to the punch line," said Mitchell, now majoring in youth studies at the University of Minnesota. "Sometimes, you need to just slow down."
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • firstname.lastname@example.org