Why High School Students Should Study Abroad

President Obama is profoundly right to try making community college more accessible. But we need to make studying abroad more accessible, too.

Twenty years ago, I spent my junior year of high school in Barcelona, Spain. I lived with a Spanish family, explored Toledo and Malaga and, yes, learned what it’s like to be drunk on Sangria.

Inspired by an ancient and noble culture, I turned from a mediocre sophomore with average grades into an accomplished high school senior with an impressive academic record. The experience paved my way to Yale and a career in international politics.

Many years later, that year in Spain led to my most recent job as a speechwriter for the NATO Secretary General. Not bad for a kid who grew up on a farm in Kentucky.

But to borrow a phrase: I didn’t build that. It took a well-off family, a private school and a big pile of scholarship cash. Without all that, I never would have made it off the farm.

We talk often about how U.S. high school students lag behind many international peers. Most kids have no chance to study abroad — in particular, poor teenagers who would benefit the most. Some drop out. Far too many wind up in a jail cell.

Reforming our high schools seems a distant prospect. But if can’t change the system, we could let a few of our kids out of it for a while.

I don’t mean three months in the UK, the single biggest destination for our students. I mean nine months in a country where they have to learn the language.

Giving high school juniors this chance would have enormous benefits, for several reasons.

First, studying abroad can be good for you. According to the Guardian, learning a foreign language makes your brain bigger, even compared to students who studied subjects other than a language.

Many others have discussed the advantages of a year abroad, usually in college. But I believe the earlier, the better.

After all, the difference in lifetime income between high school and college graduates is a massive economic dividing line in America. If you study abroad as a college junior, you’ve probably already ‘made it’. The semester in Madrid may be just icing on the cake — or a second helping of Sangria.

For a high school junior, nine months abroad could mean much more. You’re old enough to handle it and you’ll benefit the most from it. You’ll get into a better college and probably make a wiser choice about your career. And whether you’re in high school or college, after graduation you’ll earn more.

Second, a global economy demands global students. We need people who can be at home in different lands and cultures. Learning a foreign language is the first and most important step.

Are American kids learning languages? Not so much.

By contrast, more than half of all Europeans speak at least two languages. Here in Brussels, you find many people who speak five or six. Everyone speaks English, even if Germans can’t say ‘squirrel‘.

Thirdly, it wouldn’t be hard. We have huge college study-abroad programs in place already, with nearly 300,000 college students studying abroad in 2012-13. We only need to help deserving high school juniors take advantage without incurring ridiculous debts.

But here’s a more fundamental reason for studying abroad. It doesn’t just make you smarter. It opens your mind.

Sometimes our teenagers can seem a bit ignorant. When I was 16, I was pretty darn ignorant myself.

That said, I’m concerned when I meet young people who literally don’t know what NATO stands for. Or what the Holocaust was.

Studying abroad doesn’t necessarily cure this ignorance. But it does make teenagers more receptive to knowledge.

And in a celebrity culture that worships success, it also teaches the virtues of failure.

Studying abroad is, first and foremost, an instructive exercise in failure. At the start, you fail to do simple things like order a meal in a restaurant.

But you adapt because you must. And the lesson you learn — that initial setbacks, patience and work are the prerequisites for eventual success — is more important than an A in Calculus.

That lesson can’t be taught. It must be learned firsthand.

A high school year abroad is a quick and dirty way to discover just how ignorant you are. As such, it’s the door to a lifetime of learning and discovery.