By Student Intern, Michael McKenzie '19February 2018
Spending a year abroad is one of the most extraordinary experiences a student can have. Students at Wilmington Friends School are presented with the opportunity to do just that through School Year Abroad (SYA). Depending on which language they are learning, students can spend a school year learning and exploring in Spain, China, Italy, or France. SYA consists of 45 member schools from across America; WFS is the only one from Delaware. WFS has been a member school since 2007. Atim Kilama ’18, Ali Miller ’19, and Ali’s dad, Gregg Miller, were kind enough to share their firsthand experiences with SYA. Atim spent her junior year with SYA China, while Ali is currently spending her junior year with SYA Spain. Mike Benner, the WFS SYA Coordinator, graciously took the time to share some other information about SYA and what it means to WFS.
SYA is more than just learning a language, which is evident in what Ali, Atim, and Gregg had to say. When Gregg visited Ali in Spain over winter break, he was very impressed with her level of confidence and “how she just jumps in and schedules bus and train trips, talks to waiters, checks in at hotels, even bargains with vendors.” Ali has homework assignments to walk around the city of Zaragoza and talk to some of the locals. Atim’s favorite part of SYA was the trips to different provinces in China at least once a month.
Participating in extracurriculars is also encouraged. During her first semester in Spain, Ali played ping pong, took a sevillanas (traditional Spanish dancing) class, took a cooking class, participated in Joven Erasmus (a program where Spanish and American students got together once a week to discuss some of the differences between the two countries), and swam. While in China, Atim participated in karate, swam for an international team, and participated in the bilingual club. Ali believes that the biggest advantage to participating in SYA is that she gets to experience a new and different culture and lifestyle. Atim has very similar feelings about the advantages of participating in SYA: “It broadens your mind about the world and how other people in different countries live. Here in America we are so caught up in our American lifestyle that we never stop to think about how other people live and what their culture is like... I got to experience the Chinese culture first hand and also learn Chinese history, so it definitely helped me broaden my mindset.” Everybody who has participated or been involved in some way with SYA recognizes that the benefits extend beyond just learning a language.
The language is not lost among the extracurriculars and travel. Both Gregg and Ali mentioned that a few weeks after arrival, every student had to sign a contract saying they would only speak Spanish in school except for certain situations, such as in math and English classes. Ali seems to find this rule annoying yet helpful: “It is difficult at times to stay with the rule; however, we all know how much it is helping us in the long run. Every day I feel more and more comfortable with my speaking and understanding skills, and every day I learn something new.” Atim feels the most important thing she took away from her time in China is being able to hold full conversations with native Chinese speakers. She was able to learn six years of Chinese from only living in China for one school year. Ali said her Spanish skills have improved “tremendously” since she started living in Spain. SYA has vastly improved the language skills of everyone who has participated in the program.
Ali and Atim agreed that they would not have participated in SYA if WFS was not a member school. Their interest in studying abroad was sparked when they watched the presentation on SYA given to all students at WFS during their sophomore year. After watching the presentation, Ali knew SYA was for her right away: “I had always been living my life waiting for everything to become exciting; to travel the world, to make fun memories. All I wanted was just to not be on my same everyday schedule, and once I learned about SYA, I instantly knew it was for me.” Atim decided to participate in SYA because she felt that it was a great opportunity to do something most people her age do not have the opportunity to do.
Mike noted the advantages of being a member school: “As a member school, we have an ongoing relationship with SYA. This means that SYA is familiar with our students and our program, and the admissions cycle is understood by everyone. This benefits our students by ensuring that they receive up-to-date information on SYA programs, as well as guidance in the application and financial aid process.” Being a member school also helps demonstrate WFS’s commitment to world language instruction, global education, and cross-cultural understanding.
Overall, SYA has been a great experience for everyone involved. Gregg said it was, “easily one of the best and most rewarding things we've been able to do for Ali.” He was very impressed with how organized SYA is and how they took into account how nervous the parents were going to be. He said he would “absolutely” recommend SYA: “The separation is hard, although with video chatting it's not as bad, but the experiences, growth potential, and memories will last Ali a lifetime!” Like Gregg and Ali, Atim would also recommend SYA: ”It changed my life and it was one of the best years of my life.... this program also teaches you to be independent and gives you a taste of what being on your own means.” All in all, SYA is a wonderful opportunity that allows students to become more independent, learn a language, and be immersed in a culture. Mike sums SYA up well: “It is a true cultural and language immersion. In addition to becoming familiar with another culture and developing strong language skills, students return with an increased sense of confidence and independence after learning how to navigate a new city and country.”