Creative Ways U.S. Families Can Bring the World to Them: Options to Promote Student Learning

10/29/2014 06:39 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

This summer, I went to a party for some graduating high school students and met a young woman who had just landed in Denver after spending eight months in Oman. I learned Kirby went to Oman on a scholarship through the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). Not only was it an all expenses paid trip, she also learned Arabic, lived with a family, and worked with the K-12 International School. I was interested in learning more about Kirby's experience, but also wondered how her parents coped with sending their high school senior to Oman.

I recently connected with Kirby's mom, Karen, to learn more about how the study abroad experience affects the parents who stay behind.

How did you learn about NSLI-Y and why did you choose it over other immersion programs?
Kirby learned about the NSLI-Y program through a friend. Upon returning from an immersion trip to Haiti in July 2012, she and some of the other students who went on the trip got together for coffee and a debrief. It was then that another high school student brought up this scholarship opportunity to Kirby. She went home and immediately started researching the program, called me at work, and we discussed the possibility of her applying.

What role did you play in Kirby joining NSLI-Y?
I knew after our trip to Haiti (I went that summer as well) that Kirby was extremely interested in diving deeper into other cultures and language learning. We practiced Creole prior to Haiti, and the variety of less-common language options offered through NSLI-Y was amazing. I knew that this was not just a folly but a true passion. I also knew that she had the required maturity level so I worked with her seriously on her essays, the application, and the interview preparation.

Did you help in choosing Oman as a destination?
To apply, the student lists three choices based on their interest in a language and session length. The first step is deciding which language you are interested in, and Kirby's interest was in the Middle East. Arabic Studies is held in Morocco during the summer, whereas Arabic Studies during the school year is held in Oman. So, it just depends on what program the student gets selected for as to what country they will end up in. National Security is very careful not to place students in harmful situations and have had to cancel programs in the past when security is at risk.

How did you prepare for Kirby's trip?
Kirby was entering her senior year in high school when she was awarded the scholarship. All of the girls that she ended up studying with while in Oman had already graduated and were taking a gap year before college. Kirby would miss her senior year.

So, our preparations were geared towards completing all of the necessary steps for high school and college prior to her leaving. The summer before departure she had to take English and Economics online through BYU to complete senior credits. She also had colleges to visit, applications to fill out, senior pictures, wisdom teeth - it's amazing all of the things you realize will need to get done before going away for 8 months! It was this busy work that helped take my mind off of her going away. But I cannot say that is was not a tough pill to swallow. Not only was she giving up her senior year, selfishly, her dad and I felt a huge school year loss as well.

How did you communicate and how often?
Communication was surprisingly tricky considering the age we live in. For starters we had a 10-11 hour time difference, so timing was a challenge even when internet connections were good. Our most successful tool was WhatsApp - a texting app that allowed us to chat via text in real time almost without a hitch, which we used to text regularly. But when we wanted face time (Skype or some other method) the reliability of the internet in the host home was spotty at best. We talked on the phone maybe once every 3 weeks.

Sending any sort of care package or mail was also an 8-month learning process. I had packages get all the way over there, only to be returned to me stamped "undeliverable" for some reason. In total, Kirby received three packages from us, but I was careful not to send anything that could not be replaced.

How did you see the experience change your daughter when she returned?
This experience strengthened an already independent person into an amazing young adult. Right away in her first few weeks of college I could see how the skills she learned of acceptance and living outside of her comfort zone were applied to the challenge of being thrown into a dorm with 100s of unknown people. I believe the experience also encouraged her current enrollment in the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies at DU. Women's Studies has become a new interest and I'm sure this can be attributed to the cultural studies she did while in Oman.

Kirby has remained in contact with all 6 girls that were in the program for the 8 months. Even though each one of them is at a different university, they have a common bond that will keep them connected for years to come.

What did you take away from the experience?
This experience opened my eyes to all of amazing opportunities that are out there for our students. We were so lucky to have discovered NSLI-Y and share the opportunity with other families as much as we can. The next step will be supporting Kirby as she applies for a similar scholarship offered to college-age students - it's called Critical Language Scholarship Program - http://www.clscholarship.org/

What advice do you have for parents who might have their child study abroad?
Consider the impact of what timeframe your student is planning to apply for. In hindsight I can see that missing senior year of high school could potentially not be for everyone. There are shorter immersion options, as well as the increasingly popular gap-year to consider.

Also, be supportive of the intellectual curiosity of a student that is willing to leave home and study abroad. The rewards will outweigh the heartache of having them leave the nest a little early. The pride we felt as we were supported with countless friends and family following her blog, asking after her, and praying for us during the year made the separation a little more bearable.

NSLI-Y has merit-based scholarships available for students who want to learn a variety of different language and are interested in being immersed in cultures around the world. To learn more about getting involved with NSLI-Y and their work in developing youth to become leaders in the global world, visit http://www.nsliforyouth.org/.