The other day on NPR, a couple was being interviewed about their new book promoting the idea of sending kids abroad for a year instead of sending them right to college. A fella from Detroit called in asking, in a fairly shrill voice I thought, “Just who’s gonna pay for this?” He made the point that people in Detroit have a hard time just paying bills right now. The implication was that only the wealthy can afford this, or only “those in the know” could find the public funds for it.
Having some personal experience with the subject, I tried to call the station, only to learn that this was a rebroadcast of a show from that morning. So here’s a blog post, instead.
Let me open by saying that my family comes from distinctly blue-collar roots. My dad was a Kentucky tobacco-farm laborer as a kid and moved to Illinois to become a factory worker. My wife’s father was a tenant farmer all his life. While Jenny and I eventually put each other through college, it wasn’t until our thirties. (Prior to that, the thought wasn’t even conceivable. If you’ve never flown a helicopter, where do you start? Trying to imagine attending college was similarly daunting.)
My wife and I also have four daughters. So there’s never been much financial wiggle room. Despite this, three of the four children have had some experience overseas, and I’ve done some European traveling myself. My wife is more of a homebody—but I’m working on that. (She now has a global passport.)
I mention my own travel, because it’s probably what first interested the daughters in visiting overseas. In my case, three business trips to Germany and two to England formed the basis of my travel. In each case, I made sure to extend the trip by at least one day to get some exposure to the local sights. Once I even managed to arrange ten days of vacation between two separate business trips to Germany—flying over for the first event; then traveling to Rome on the cheap for a few days, then to Barcelona, then to Paris; then back to Germany for the second business event and flying home from there. I always made a point of studying the languages, picking up a smattering of German, some Italian for the ten-day trip, as well as brushing up on my Spanish and French. (Did I mention my Spanish minor and a semester of French in college? When you attend school later in life on your own dime, you make the most of it.) I also made a point of bringing gifts for each of the girls and my wife after each trip, as well as photos, of course.
Our oldest daughter found her way overseas in the Army. She spent over a year in Korea, and made a point of climbing its mountains, visiting the demilitarized zone, and generally traveling about whenever possible. She also took advantage of Japan’s proximity to make several visits there. Nowadays she owns a little farm in Nebraska and can’t travel far from her animals, but she’s seen a very different way of life in her Asian adventures, and her understanding is the richer for it. Her reading and conversations certainly demonstrate that continued global interest.
Our second daughter hasn’t yet been overseas, but she was the first to take a plane ride—at eight years old—on a business trip to Boston with me. She’s also the one I’ve done the most road trips with in the Midwest. Some fairly serious health issues make it difficult for her to travel further. But she has studied Spanish. Foreign-language study in itself exposes a person to other cultures.
Daughter three is the most international of us all. At sixteen she begged us to let her go on a ten-day band trip to Moscow. Her mother fretted about the idea but couldn’t really refuse, especially with me countering any arguments. The school held a group fund raising event to cover part of it, with the students selling candy, and we scraped together the rest by tightening our belts elsewhere.
Just before leaving, she dropped a bombshell on us, stating that she also wanted to spend a year abroad via the Rotary Club. By the time she returned from Moscow, I had her mother pretty much convinced to let it happen. It isn’t easy to say goodbye to your sixteen-year-old for a year, but how could we say no?
I cannot praise the Rotary Club highly enough. These businesspeople contribute to all sorts of community enhancements, donating to charities, building local public sports fields, and so on. But their star effort is the foreign exchange program, whereby they send high-school children from countries around the world to live with host families in other countries around the world, all for the purpose of promoting global understanding. Students do have to compete for the honor, to show their dedication to the idea.
The Rotary covers some of the expense, especially for low-income families, but even more valuable is the instruction they provide both the students and their parents. A one-year trip to a foreign land can be very difficult for a teenager, and the Rotary well prepares parents to understand and support their children.
My wife and I were able to commit a weekly stipend to help pay our daughter’s expenses in Germany and support her educational travel within Europe during her time there. We asked family and friends to contribute, and our employers both donated enough cash to cover her round-trip ticket and then some. The point is, by breaking the overall cost down into smaller chunks, and by finding multiple sources of support—including fund raising by the student him- or herself—what may seem a staggering expense to families such as ours gets whittled down to manageable size.
And the results are more than worth the effort. From that year in Germany, our daughter not only gained an amazing mastery of the language but also lifelong friends. One of them later came to stay with us for a few weeks, to practice her English natively and to better understand U.S. culture.
Our daughter went on to a double major in German and English Literature at college, and she found another program to spend her junior year of college in Germany again. After graduating, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to return to Germany for another year, to help teach in one of their high schools.
That leaves one daughter not yet mentioned. Our fourth child gibed for years that she was the only person in the family who had never been on an airplane. One day we came home to tell her, “Guess what. We’re sending you on a flight. Alone. (You’re old enough.) To Germany to visit your sister for two weeks.” Christmas was skimpy for the rest of us that year, but we counted it money well spent.
As things turned out, it was more of an adventure than we expected. Her connecting flight in the U.S. was so terribly delayed that they routed her through Amsterdam instead of directly to Frankfurt. Consequently, she was six hours late arriving and came in at the local European terminal instead of the international terminal where her older sister was waiting. Still, the two girls figured it out, and they had a couple of great weeks together, seeing the sites, practicing their German, and (I hope) talking about how wonderful their longsuffering parents were to make it happen.
I mentioned earlier as an aside that when you go to college late in life and have to pay your own way, the experience is richer. By the same token, I know from listening to my daughters talk that their travel experiences have been more precious because of the effort that had to go into making them possible. They’ve mentioned meeting young people from wealthier families who came to visit and skimmed across the surface of the culture, mocking it for not being more like the U.S. And even that has given my daughters a better understanding of the world.
So to the fellow in Detroit, and to anyone else who might be reading this post, I say: Give the idea a try. Like most anything else, it looks more daunting from the outside than from within. And if you want to make it happen, there are ways to make it happen.
I’ll close with a thought I’ve repeated to my daughters many times over the years. One of their grandmothers mentioned late in life that she had once had a shot at being in the movies, but she didn’t take it. She always wondered later what might have happened if she had. My own goal is to reach old age without having any such “what if” thoughts. If you think you might like something, but you’re not certain, give it a try now, while you can.
I ate the snail soup in Rothenburg. It was surprisingly good.