SYA: Reflections after Returning to the Hill

For most students at Andover, senior year is a step forward, a step toward experiencing the responsibilities of adulthood. Yet for those few students who return from School Year Abroad, senior year is a step in reverse. These students return only to find that the ideal of “seniority” is no more than a futile year of requirements, marked by an illusion of responsibility and maturity. It pales in comparison to the trials of living and studying abroad for a full academic year. Each year, between four and six rising Uppers leave the Hill, and embark on a challenging opportunity known as School Year Abroad. In this program, students spend their upper year at one of SYA’s four sites: Spain, France, China, and Italy. Immediately upon their arrival, these adventurous students are immersed in a foreign language and culture, facing experiences and challenges most cannot even imagine. Although the schools are American and, in China and Italy, do have some classes in English, as soon as the class day ends, students leave their comfort zone to face the daily challenges of living in a foreign culture. At Andover, students can escape the stresses of campus life by finding sanctuary in the sleeping room, Graham House, and or even fleeing into Boston. But, even when they are at home, SYA students live with strangers. Each student must learn to adapt to the new culture and forge a familial bond, while still struggling with the new language. Moreover, when SYA students are faced with problems, they must learn to resolve these issues themselves without the support of their school. Before long, the student ceases to view studying abroad as a sort of “vacation,” and realizes that the experiences ahead will not be easy. Despite such challenges, many SYA students graduate from their year abroad extremely proficient, if not fluent, in a new language. They are also comfortable with, and even part, of a new culture. Therefore, it is not surprising that many people (and colleges) view the experience of living and studying abroad as difficult and rewarding. Furthermore, those students who graduate from SYA feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. And yet, upon returning to Andover, these students find that the maturity, responsibility and understanding obtained through their experiences are not nurtured in senior year, but rather stunted. Hillary Walker, who spent her Upper year at SYA France, remarked that Andover is “restrictive” and feels as if the school fails to provide students with any true responsibility and independence. Because SYA students have no extracurricular or athletic requirements, they can pursue their interests through their own method and initiative. Meanwhile, Andover students appear to be “spoon-fed” with requirements that will help land them at the nation’s most prestigious universities. In addition to feeling stunted and babied when they return to PA, students from SYA find that the Andover community is, as a whole, rather ignorant and unreceptive of the SYA experience. When I returned to the Andover campus for the first time after my year at SYA Italy, I found that many of my previous teachers did not know that I had spent the past year on SYA and had instead assumed that I had joined the Navy and been sent to active duty in Iraq. The fact that faculty are so unaware of students on SYA is appalling. Julia Watson, who returned this year from SYA China, experienced similar ignorance with regard to the Andover community’s awareness of the SYA program when, upon finishing her history presentation on the youth educational system in China, was asked by her teacher, “What sparked your interest in the educational affairs of China?” Such ignorance to the true nature of the SYA program is further displayed when students ask half-hearted questions that diminish the challenges of SYA, such as “How was your trip?” Some even go as far as to make SYA students to feel ashamed of their year abroad, labeling them as “slackers” for missing the infamous Upper year of the Phillips Academy to “party” in a foreign country for a year. Although no student who spent a year on SYA will deny that it is an amazing time in which one meets new and exciting people and enjoys fun and life-changing experiences, the opportunity to spend Upper year abroad is by no means a “slacker way out.” Instead, students who have experienced the full year of SYA will attest to the fact that, although the course load is lighter on SYA, one is constantly challenged in every moment of daily life and forced to bear more responsibility and independence than one’s peers on the Hill. Moreover, anecdotal evidence shows that upon their return to Andover, students from SYA are often driven by a stronger and more balanced work ethic, and perform better in their classes during the challenging Senior fall than they had during their Lower year. Nevertheless, while students who spent five weeks abroad during the summer are actively invited to share their experiences both in and outside the classroom, those students who spent an entire academic year abroad are ignored and left to feel like outcasts by faculty and students alike. Andover, after all, co-founded the School Year Abroad program with the hope of providing its students with the opportunity to experience foreign languages and cultures with the intention of allowing PA Uppers to develop themselves into more worldly and intellectual students. Why is it that the Andover community now appears to regard the program with such disdain? It is strange to think that at a school which prides itself on being open to the experiences of others and on nurturing a student both intellectually and culturally toward a greater understanding of the surrounding world, those students who pursue such ideals to their truest extent are shunned by their peers, their experiences falling victim to deaf ears. Those of us returning from SYA are not asking for awards for our endeavor, nor do we necessarily feel that SYA has put us above our peers on the Hill. We just feel that the Andover community should be made more aware of the SYA Program and the experiences and challenges of those who pursued such a great opportunity.