Becoming a Global Citizen by Studying Abroad


James Leupold with his science teacher and friends on an SYA school ski trip. Photo Courtesy of James Leupold.

Shefali Sahai, Staff Writer

School Year Abroad (SYA) is an international program that allows American sophomores, juniors and seniors to study abroad in Spain, Italy, France or China for a year, living with a host family for nine months. In the past, Menlo students typically participate in SYA during their junior year, continuing their education at Menlo when they return.  

Upper School Director John Schafer strongly encourages the program. “I believe that living abroad broadens you. You see other perspectives, you see people have different priorities, they organize their lives differently, they have different foods and breakfast and they have different customs and rituals. Understanding that is a key part of anyone’s education,” Schafer said. 

According to the SYA website, their programs have been designed to help students develop skills relevant to today’s highly interconnected world. “Broadening yourself and becoming more globally literate makes you a better student and a more thoughtful person, and it also brings something back to the school,” Schafer said. He believes that this program is similar to other Menlo Abroad programs; when students come back to Menlo from different countries, they can bring new perspectives to campus and enrich classroom discussions. “You can learn enough reading about a culture, but you learn a whole lot more living in it,” Schafer said.  

“[SYA] was cool because we could learn about something in the classroom, then go out into the city and actually experience it up close,” former SYA student James Leupold said. Leupold is currently a senior and went to Spain two years ago as a junior, then decided to repeat junior year when he came back to Menlo. “Since I was young for my grade, my parents wanted me to repeat junior year so that I would be older for college,” Leupold said. This was a personal decision that he made with his family, and Menlo does not require students to repeat the year they missed.

Students who go abroad and rejoin their classmates in the fall may be concerned about adjusting back, but it is not very different from transferring to another high school. “There may be some bumps but they’re not huge, and if you’re hard-working and responsible you can know how to address them,” Schafer said. Another concern about going abroad junior year is SAT or ACT test preparation, but each SYA location is a certified testing center, and they require students to take test prep classes.  

Students may choose to do the SYA program for a variety of reasons, most commonly to have an immersive experience, to take a gap year or to develop language skills. Some students may also have a specific subject that they would like to study in a certain country. For example, students can study the history of Spanish art in Spain, architecture or environmental science in France, democracy in Italy or calligraphy and Chinese martial arts in China. 

Many of the SYA programs also have strong language immersion programs. When Leupold went to Spain, he was in Foundations 2 Spanish, but when he came back to Menlo he placed into an AP Spanish level. Being in that environment for nine months, constantly surrounded by the language, forced him to learn and become more comfortable speaking Spanish. “By the end, I was reading books that my host brother was reading for school,” Leupold said. He described how by the last few months of the program, he was going out every night and talking with local Spanish kids. 

However, according to Schafer, students should have certain skills in order to be successful in the program. “You have to have enough maturity and desire for independence to want to leave home and go on this program, and then once you are there, you grow your maturity and responsibility because you have to figure stuff out. You have to learn to read the bus schedule or adapt to your host family’s customs and rituals,” Schafer said. 

As an example, Leupold’s host family did not speak any English, and most of his teachers did not either. “The first month was definitely a challenge, but the classes accommodated for that since the teachers knew that we did not speak much Spanish in the beginning,” Leupold said.     

Leupold strongly encourages Menlo students to take advantage of this opportunity and study abroad. “By the time I came back, I was thinking in Spanish, dreaming in Spanish and even sleep talking in Spanish,” Leupold said.

For any sophomore or junior Menlo students interested, SYA applications are due on Feb. 12, 2020.