Why every child should spend a year abroad

Episode 20 with Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

The most transformative gift you can give a young person? Pushing them out of the nest to learn empathy, adaptability and a foreign language.

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When I tell you I was an exchange student, your mind may well go somewhere pretty unflattering. Pop culture has not been kind to us. We are comic relief or sex objects. If we’re French, we’re both. And snobs, too. There’s Fez in That 70’s Show whose name actually stands for Foreign Exchange… Ztudent? His friends know his real name but can’t be bothered to try pronouncing it. There’s Nadia in American Pie, a fantasy for oversexed American teenagers who ends up sent home for sexual misconduct. (She’s abused really, but it’s the 90s so we don’t talk about that.) And where do I even start with Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles?

Exchange students are so much more than the butt of jokes. They’re young people who take a big leap into the unknown and come out of it more mature, more empathetic and more open to the many ways of being on this planet. The world would be a more peaceful and innovative if everyone had that chance. If I were a Bill Gates type, that’s the one thing I would fund – universal youth exchange.

My guest on the podcast this week, Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia, agrees. She went from the newly broken up Soviet Union to Desmoines, Iowa back in 1993. I went from my native France to New Jersey in 2001-02 and became this bilingual, militantly global person you follow. Kate and I reminisced and in doing so, landed on some advice for future students to make the most of that year and for all of us to make sure it happens for more of them.

Read below for some of it. For more and to hear Kate’s amazing life story, listen to the episode, read the transcript and join me on LinkedIn Live on Thursday 5 pm GMT.

I was young once. Evidence☝️

Note: I’m fully aware that Covid-19 has paused many programs, forced some kids to go home early or stopped them leaving. I am heartbroken for them. But these things are planned years in advance so younger teens need to be thinking about it. As do we all.

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Make a difference

💪 If you’ve listened to the episode already, you’ve heard about one of the bravest young people I know, Kate’s daughter Masha. She is raising funds to help rare cancer patients like herself fund their treatment. You can help.

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Advice to an exchange student

Want to make it happen for your kid? I’ll chat live on Thursday 5pm GMT with Lindsay Griswold of Rotary Youth Exchange and we’ll get into the details. Join us.

Go young, go long
Not that there isn’t value in university exchanges, but going earlier in your formative years will be more transformative. It’s not about academic prestige or partying, it’s a time to just be and grow up in a completely different environment. Going at 15 or 16 is best, and makes accepting a host family’s rules much easier than at 18. And because it takes a while to settle in and truly enjoy the experience, long exchanges are best. Aim for a year.

Learn a foreign language
If you’re gonna go, go for broke. Pick a destination where they don’t speak your mother tongue. Having to be intentional about communicating and socializing humbles you in the best way. It’s being knocked off balance that forces you to develop new muscles. Being bilingual also has countless cognitive benefits and doesn’t suck on the job market either.

Be open to weird
Kate witnessed her host mother spatchcocking a chicken with kitchen shears. “I remember thinking, ‘oh my god, that's just so stupid, I would never do that,’” she told me. “You show up supposedly open to the idea and then you spend months judging.” Truth is, you’re a know-it-all teenager even when you’re an exchange student. Fight that instinct.

Get off your phone
Those of us who traveled before Instagram, TikTok and the rest got to experience true immersion. “Every time I called home it would be roughly about 60 bucks a phone call,” Kate recalled. She talked to her parents in Moscow during the constitutional crisis, when there were tanks not far from her home. I talked to mine on 9/11. The rest of the time, we were mostly on our own. You’re not experiencing life abroad if your brain is still back home. Put the phone away.

You can actually do it
I wish more teenagers knew about the opportunity and pursued it. Talk to your school. Contact your local Rotary club, embassies or regional organizations. (I’m a big fan of Rotary Youth Exchange because it changed my life, but there are other programs.) Non-profit programs like the Rotary’s aren’t as expensive as you might think. Don’t let money be a barrier: you can raise a GoFundme, find scholarships or save a couple years of babysitting money. Consider a country closer to home, with cheaper flights and easier visas. The point is less where you go than the act of going.

What we grown-ups can do
Consider hosting exchange students. It’s the best gift you can give a young person, and you’ll get as much from it as they will. It may inspire a younger child, too. Plant the seed early. If there are exchange students in your community, you can also volunteer to help show them places. They often haven’t had much time to make friends and are happy for a weekend away.

The really big difference we could make, as Kate and I both advocate, is creating a universal and compulsory year abroad as part of our public education systems. The European Union could be a good place to start. Am I dreaming too big? Let’s discuss on Thursday.

💡Forward this newsletter to a teenager. It could inspire something big…

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Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.