“Some people become tri-sport athletes, others, B-campers; for me, it was a year abroad that gave me a way to look at myself a different way,” said Defne ’19. She was discussing her junior year as an exchange student in France. As part of the School’s Off-Campus Study Program, Thacher partners with an organization called School Year Abroad (SYA) to offer its students international study opportunities.
The Decision to Go
Not all students are interested in studying abroad, and even fewer consider it for part of their high school experience. Defne developed an interest in France early on and hoped to travel there at some point in her life, but, she said, “I never imagined I’d be able to live there as early as I did.”
The decision to trade the familiar surroundings of Thacher for foreign soil was a difficult one. “I was worried about leaving the Thacher community for a year. And I was concerned that being away would limit my senior leadership opportunities.” Defne knew that she wanted to be a freshman prefect in the Casa de Piedra dormitory, because her freshman prefect had been one of the most positive and influential people she had encountered at Thacher. Defne wanted to share that same optimism and sense of family with freshman girls her senior year. She applied for a prefect position while in France, and to her surprise, was named head prefect for Casa.
School in France
Four of the courses Defne took, AP French, French Literature, Art History, Global Issues and Political Science, were taught in French. “At first,” she said, “language was a challenge, because I couldn't express my opinions well, and I had to work hard to get the participation grade I wanted. The language issue was less challenging as I learned more French.” English Literature, Science, and Math were taught in English.
The SYA France campus, located about 200 miles west of Paris in Rennes, is close to a local high school, where the exchange students went for lunch daily. They were also required to participate in a cultural immersion activity weekly. Defne chose to take a dance class with university students. Other students played on local sports teams. While the cultural immersion activities gave her opportunities to connect with French youth, the majority of her cultural experience came from her home stay.
The Home Stay
During her first week in France, Defne was more homesick than she had been her first week at Thacher. “At Thacher, I was with people who were having the same experience I was. In France, I was with a new family, and my language skills weren’t strong enough for me to express to them what I was going through.” But once school began, she was so engaged with her activities that there wasn’t time to be homesick.
Her host parents lived in a residential area outside the city, that required a 20 minute commute to school daily (a short walk and two bus rides). She said, the housing arrangement was perfect for her, “I liked being in the city during the day, then in a residential area for my evenings and weekends, and I had plenty of opportunities to socialize with the friends I made.” The family also had adult children whom Defne spent time with—one daughter was a university student and was home on breaks, and their son lived in town with his family.
Over the Christmas holiday season, Defne enjoyed a visit with her mother and sister, who traveled to France for a week. She was glad the visit hadn’t gone the other direction, because a couple of classmates went home to the states for the holidays and found it difficult to re-acclimate.
“Going was the best decision I made during my time here,” said Defne. “I was placed in a different context and that pushed me to stand on me own two feet. It forced me to look at my moral values and I got more clarity on what I want to do with my life.” She thinks the timing was perfect, because as a high school, rather than college, student, she felt she had more freedom to make internal adjustments and change directions.
Studying abroad may not be the best choice for everyone, but for those looking for a cross-cultural experience, or a chance to master a new language, Defne encourages a serious look at the program Thacher offers through SYA.