For the past two months, the two of us have been living with a foreign family, eating unfamiliar foods, and going on field trips around Europe, all the while fulfilling our requirements to finish our Upper year. Last spring, convinced by countless meetings praising renowned “Learning in the World” opportunities by the Tang Institute, we decided to pack our bags and disappear to France and Spain for nine months.
Since leaving, we have realized that Andover’s environment has made the world feel a lot smaller than it truly is. The so-called “Andover bubble” – though it allowed us to be surrounded by passionate students – was a claustrophobic and somewhat unhealthy environment filled with non-stop competition and academics. Students at Andover spend most of their “free-time” doing work, in the attempt to merely keep up.
At Andover, everyday is a countdown until the end of the week or the end of the term. School-wide emails are often signed with phrases such as “Only a couple days left! or “You can do it!” — making it clear that teachers and faculty are well aware that we are all struggling just to make it to the end. But at our new schools, we can feel an immense weight lifted off our shoulders. Now, we sit down and have hour-long conversations with our host families, learning in a foreign language, and roam our cities after school. We are free from the constant pressure of homework and stress and more homework.
Though we have not been away for even a full term, we can already feel the effects of taking extended time off from Andover. Through the School Year Abroad (SYA) program, we have been granted a new kind of mental and emotional freedom. Our schools encourage us to explore the cultures we reside in. Our homework assignments ask us to visit museums and converse with native speakers.
Unique hands-on learning experiences are essential to our growth. The true meaning of “Learning in the World” is leaving the familiar and entering the unknown. Living in a country where we don’t know the customs, traditions and language of the people is humbling. At Andover, it is easy to feel ashamed for being wrong or confused, but abroad it is healthy and normal to feel challenged, throwing away all embarrassment and embracing our mistakes in a new place.
In no way was it easy to leave Andover for an entire year. Although we miss our campus, our friends and our families back in the States, it has become clear that we needed time outside. At Andover, we were always aware that we should and could be happier, but it wasn’t until we left that we realized just how much happiness and learning was missing from our lives.
SYA is an intimidating prospect and certainly not for everyone, but we hope all students consider giving themselves a break.