Can a year abroad change your life?

When I was a junior in high school, I got a Rotary scholarship to study in Strasbourg, France for a year.

Image by Bichot from Paris

Image by Bichot from Paris

I was sixteen. This was before email and cell phones and Skype. Back when long-distance calling meant beaucoup bucks. So I was pretty much cut off from my family for ten months. Sure, we wrote letters back and forth, but that was it.

It was…jarring.

I was fully submerged in a completely different culture and a foreign language (sure, I had taken “4 years of French,” but really, what does that mean?). I went from Berkeley High School (with a graduating class of 800) to a private, Catholic all-girls school (graduating class of 27). I switched host families and homes every 2.5 months: suburbs, 200-year-old farmhouse, swanky urban penthouse, apartment.

It was simultaneously the best and worst year of my life.

Best: because I became completely fluent in French, I learned how to embrace life in a foreign country by myself, and I had to draw on some pretty deep wells of resourcefulness and creativity to figure out how to make it all work.

Worst: because I was lonely all the time, I felt like I never really fit in, I gained a ton of weight, and I was overwhelmingly sad.

So I was very interested in this article by Danzy Senna. In it, she chronicles her decision to move her young family to Paris for a year. She imagines a world of impeccable manners, a transformation from typical American to flawless French. She was “determined to make [her] kids tough, gritty, independent, and exceedingly polite in two languages.”

Needless to say, this isn’t exactly what happened.

It’s an interesting read…hope you enjoy it as much as I did.



  1. Kendra, I can absolutely relate. At 17 I was an exchange student in USA and felt very “fish out of water.” It was so lonely, as I only talked to my parents once a month. It’s such a different culture from the one, I grew up in. But, I met my husband during that time, so I guess you can say it was the best year of my life!

  2. I feel sorry for anyone with above average intelligence who has not been afforded the opportunity to experience other cultures. It is one of the most enriching things you can do.

  3. Points Pixie says

    leana – I can tell that you had a similar experience. Would love to compare notes sometime!

    NB – Yes, it really did change my life.

  4. I had a very different experience – I loved my fabulous year abroad in Paris and then 2 years later another year abroad in Dakar, Senegal. It was back in the days when I communicated with my parents by snail mail so I did have my homesick days. But most of the time, I was so excited to be experiencing a new culture (and learning French) that I didn’t have much time to feel lonely. It changed my life and it fueled my travel addiction!

    • Points Pixie says

      Denise – That is SO great! Were you also in high school? What program was it with?

      I went into the experience expecting to absolutely love it, but it was just really hard. It snowed for months, moving from family to family was challenging, and the school thing really threw me for a loop.

      But, like I said – it was also the best year of my life 🙂 And similar to you, it sparked my interest in travel.

  5. The main mistake the lady in the Vogue article made, and what many others make, is to choose Paris. I would say the same to anyone moving from Europe to the US. Don’t choose New York. Try a smaller town which is MUCH easier to integrate in. Where the mothers (and sometimes fathers) actually cook for their children, and take them to the park, etc.

    I host foreign exchange students here in France and we have a pretty good track record. But it is the truth that it depends a great deal on the attitude of the child. And I think it worked a lot better in the days before smartphones.

  6. I would not apologize about being an overwhelmed sixteen year old abroad for a year. I can hardly think of any high school age kids who would be mature enough to swing that. Especially being moved from family to family and situation to situation. I would not have had the courage to tackle that when I was that age.

    A month, maybe. A year? I would have been crying in my wine.

  7. Points Pixie says

    Matt – I think there are a lot of factors involved in how the year plays out. Sounds like you’ve got a good attitude and a lot of experience, so I’m sure your students are grateful for that!

    Anne – I did a lot of crying in my wine 😉

  8. Yes! A year abroad can totally change your life! I went to Japan for my last year of high school and it was indeed a life-altering experience. Thanks for this post that made me recall my own experiences.

  9. Aged 14 I spent the second half of tenth grade living with a French family in Lyons in 1972, so well before email and no phone contact, a private school kid from Park Avenue (and all you imagine that means) in New York, Jewish, transplanted to a very different kind of family, Catholic, and a boisterous but much more disciplined public school in a much smaller city and I LOVED it. Sure I was lonely sometimes, but the novelty of daily life there and the abundant kindness I experienced from my family and schoolmates more than made up for any passing melancholy and knowing I could rely on my own resourcefulness made me brave. Thus I was more than ready four years later to take off for a self-funded summer in Europe days after completing my sophomore year in college, landing in Paris and activating my eight-week Eurail pass the morning of my 18th birthday.

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