Two pros share pros of studying abroad

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Courtesy Kate O'Neal and Dafna Adler

Nearly 20 years apart, senior Kate O’Neal and Los Altos High School counselor Dafna Adler traveled across the world to study abroad in France and fully immerse themselves in the culture. Regarding it as one of the most magical experiences of their lifetimes, both are now strong advocates for international study in high school and college.

Strolling through the quaint streets of France and admiring picturesque architecture at dawn before stopping for a freshly-baked croissant isn’t just a daydream for senior Kate O’Neal. Instead, it’s one of her favorite memories from studying abroad in Toulouse, France.

Looking for an adventure to spice up life after her freshman year at Los Altos High School, Kate applied to The Council on International Educational Exchange and left the Bay Area to spend her sophomore year living with a local host family and studying at Lycée Stéphane Hessel.

“One night I was just Googling ‘study abroad in France’ and then the next, I was literally filling out the application and submitting it,” Kate said.

As her departure drew closer, she began to nervously second-guess her rash decision, but reflecting back on her year abroad, she appreciates the freedom the experience allowed her.

“In a whole different country on a whole different continent, you don’t know anyone, so you can just do whatever you want to do and be whoever you want to be without restraints,” Kate said.

In 2019, Kate walked along the illuminated Pont Neuf (left), a 16th-century bridge, located in Toulouse, France during her travels. Adler overlooks the Parisian cityscape with the Eiffel Tower in sight (right) while studying abroad in 2000. (Courtesy Kate O’Neal and Dafna Adler)

She used this time away from the familiarity of home to gain a global perspective, a topic often overlooked by the American public school system. After talking to locals, Kate was able to see America through a new, French angle.

“We all live in America, and we’re surrounded by Americans, and we all think we’re the best,” Kate said. “But then you go to other countries, and they’re like ‘Yeah, you guys are just loud.’ Being able to learn about a different culture and immerse yourself in it is really freeing because you don’t have to be bogged down by your own nationality.”

Uncovering cultural tidbits like American stereotypes or the intricacies of speaking colloquial French helped satisfy Kate’s desire to immerse herself deep into French culture. She felt like a true native using the local term for a chocolate croissant, chocolatine, rather than its common counterpart, pain au chocolat.

“I learned details about how culture impacts language that can’t be taught in a classroom,” Kate said.

For as much as she learned about France, Kate also learned more about herself and how much she values independence.

“I feel like I’ve learned how to be by myself a lot, and that definitely stayed with me when I came back, especially now during the pandemic,” Kate said. “I realized that the people and things around you will change, but you’ll always have yourself.”

Counselor Dafna Adler, a study-abroad enthusiast, is looking to encourage more students to take study abroad opportunities in high school and college like Kate did.

Kate poses with her friends (left) in Toulouse when living in the city in 2018. In 2000, Adler traveled from Paris to Ireland, visiting the Kylemore Abbey (right), a Benedictine monastery, during her trip. (Courtesy Kate O’Neal and Dafna Adler)

“I really want to normalize studying internationally as just another option and not something scary,” Adler said. “For students that are pretty independent, thrive in cultural settings and want to get out there in the world, it’s an incredible experience.”

Adler’s own experience abroad in Paris, completing her French major surrounded by locals and studying art inside Parisian museums, changed her life and gave her a new lens to observe culture. She brought that passion to LAHS, where she educates students on the various benefits of studying internationally in an effort to debunk myths about the experience.

“International universities are all about transparency and inclusivity,” Adler said. “They’re not about statistics and rankings and keeping students out as a measure of prestige. They’re like, ‘Come learn with us!’”

Many believe that studying abroad in college comes with a larger price tag when in truth, students can fund an entire undergraduate degree internationally for about the cost of one to two years here. It’s also much more common to graduate from a university abroad in three years, rather than the typical United States four.

Kate photographed the Capitole de Toulouse (left) as the sun set while exploring Toulouse in 2019. While on a counselor tour of international colleges in Scotland in 2019, Adler snapped a photo of the University of Glasgow’s Memorial Chapel (right). (Courtesy Kate O’Neal and Dafna Adler)

Adler’s passion led her to start International University Day, a very brief introduction to global universities featuring a speaker from Wales, a year ago. This program graduated to International University Month this past October as a larger collaboration between LAHS counseling and the College and Career Center. She invited over 30 different international universities, ranging from Asia to Australia, to host workshops and educate students on what college life would really be like abroad.

International University Month helped many undecided students get a quick look into their range of international options, but by her senior year, Kate already had her heart set on the University of Edinburgh, one of Scotland’s most prestigious universities. She’ll be attending this university next year, drawn in by its lack of general education core classes as well as unique neoclassical and medieval architecture.

“It’s really good for you to go abroad and put yourself in uncomfortable situations because it makes you realize how big the world is and understand other people’s points of view,” Kate said. “I never want to be so complacent with my life that I become ignorant of other cultures.”

In an effort not to waste a minute of the time she could be spending exploring the world, Kate is also planning on spending a year in Italy or going back to France once in college. She and Adler encourage students to try out studying abroad, even if it’s just a semester in college, because of how much it opened their eyes.

“I know so many adults that have this huge regret that the one thing they didn’t do in college was study abroad,” Adler said. “It’s the one time in your life where you don’t have to worry so much about having a roof over your head but can just go there and focus on studying and traveling and absorbing the culture.”