The SYA Admissions Blog | High School Study Abroad

Exploring China: SYA Visits Yunnan Province

Posted by Carly Thurlow on Thu, May 19, 2016

One of the most memorable travel experiences at SYA China is the two-week trip to Yunnan province, held each spring, which is located in the extreme southwest of China. Each year, students endure a 34-hour train ride south to immerse themselves in life outside of Beijing. The geography of Yunnan is as diverse as its people, with the Tibetan plateau to the north, rain forests to the south and elaborately-terraced rice paddies in the east. During their trip, they encounter much of Yunnan’s diversity—living in villages, visiting markets and even trekking 

Yumna_-_Bike_Photo.jpgalong the renowned ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road,’ which links Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet, stretching across Nepal and India.

During this trip, SYA encourages students to extend themselves by using their language skills to meet and learn about local people and their lives. Each year there are students who gain a tremendous amount from educational travel and they become good travelers because they engage in their surroundings.

SYA China’s first stop was at the capital, Kunming, where they enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere in comparison to their every day life in the hustle and bustle of Beijing. Kunming is one of the safest cities in China and is referred to as the “Spring City’ as it almost always has perfect weather.

After a three-day stay in the capital, they made their way to Jian Shui, a quaint, ancient town in Honghe Prefecture of Yunnan Province, which has over 100 temples, large residences and academies of classical learning. 

The rest of their time was spent exploring local markets, hikes leading to some of Yunnan’s most beautiful regions known for their ethnic diversity, spending nights in the homes of the villagers and becoming part of the culture with traditional dances and singing around night time bonfires.

Educational travel is an essential part of SYA’s high school study abroad curriculum and an important way to help our students understand a China that is both impossibly large and amazingly diverse. SYA's trips are designed to give our students an in-depth look at parts of Chinese culture that are unknown to all but the most seasoned traveler.

SYA China student, Owen Greenwood, from Belmont Hill School in Massachusetts, put together a video below highlighting their two-week adventure across southwest China.

Learn more about SYA China today! 

Topics: SYA China

Friends come and go, but family always stays with you - Blog by Karen Ahn

Posted by Carly Thurlow on Mon, May 16, 2016


Karen Ahn comes to SYA from The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. She is currently a junior and a Campus Reporter at SYA Italy. Read more of her work here.

It’s hard to imagine how fast nine months can go by until you’ve been at School Year Abroad. I still can’t comprehend how it is now May 11, 2016. In just thirteen days, I will be on a flight back to the States. In just thirteen days, I will be leaving my host family, whom I have come to think as my second real family, and my friends. In just thirteen days, I will be saying goodbye to the life I have made here.

I thought that, towards the end, I would spend my day in centro thinking about the things I would miss such as, but certainly not limited to, the cappuccino and the pizza and the delicious gelato that you can find at any street corner. Every passing day would seem to grow shorter and shorter, until there aren’t any days left to pass and it was time to go. I thought that I would end up spending all this remaining time with my friends, because it would be harder to see them once the year was over.

But this hasn’t been the case. Truthfully, I wonder why I don’t stuff my face in the delectable and authentic Italian food and reminisce about the past few months, all with friends that have also been through this impossible-to-describe experience. After all, that’s what other students are doing.

Yet last Saturday at 5 PM, I found myself with my host family, talking with them about mundane things such as the latest Apple phone and even playing 2008 Wii games that I had already beaten a long time ago, ignoring messages to come hang out or grab dinner by other SYA students. And that time that I spent with my host family gave me a great sense of fulfillment and content.

It’s not that I don’t want to talk to other Americans; rather, I just want to cherish the fleeting time I have with my host family. The friends that I have met during this year are some of the most interesting people I have met in my life. However, it is admittedly easier to fly across the country to meet someone than to fly over the Atlantic Ocean, into a completely different continent.

A few months ago, my host mother told me something that has stuck with me: “Gli amici vanno e vengono, ma la famiglia sta sempre con te,” which roughly translates to, “Friends come and go, but family always stays with you.” She followed this phrase with assurance that I was a part of their family now, so with that fact, they would always be with me.
Thinking about the first month with my host family, I never expected or even hoped to become that close with them. I am a very independent person, so the concept of family has never struck me as something that I needed, but my experience with my host family changed that. I witnessed firsthand how supportive a family can be, even if they aren’t related by blood, and how even nine months can change one’s mindset about what you need and want.

So when my host mom said that I was part of their family, I cried. And I’m sure that, when I leave Italy, I’ll be more emotional about leaving my host family, than about leaving my friends. Although I will continue to maintain all of the relationships I have made here, I sincerely hope that I can come back soon to see my second family.

Spring has Sprung in Beijing! - Photos by Jennifer Lu

Posted by Carly Thurlow on Thu, May 12, 2016

Jennifer Lu is part of the SYA China Class of 2016. She comes to SYA from Polytechnic School in California and has provided us with great photos over the past several months. View more of her work here. 

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Grasping the Memories from a School Year Abroad - Blog by Danielle Kaye

Posted by Carly Thurlow on Wed, May 11, 2016

Danielle Kaye comes to SYA from Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood, CA. She is currently a junior and a Campus Reporter at SYA France. Read more of her work here.

As our bus speeds through the French countryside after the final school trip of the year, I glance out the window. A green blur fills my view. The wide fields, lonely but also inviting in their emptiness, blend together with the trees to create one single image, one color. I barely notice the variations in the landscape; the bus is moving too fast. As soon as I spot a dirt path winding through the distant hills or a group of small bushes swaying with the wind, it vanishes behind me, out of the window frame and gone forever.Danielle_Kaye_-_Friends_In_Nice.jpg

Part of me longs to stop the bus, to stop time. But more than anything, spending nine months abroad has taught me that life always moves forward, no matter how hard we might try to keep it still. Gazing out the window, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the number of memories I’ve made in this country that has become my home. The thought of forgetting them frightens me. Will all of the moments fade away like the passing trees, only to gather dust on a shelf in the back of my mind?

The harsh reality is that not everything can be remembered. One year – especially a year filled with so many new people and new places – is made up of an infinite number of memories, some that fade and others that last. As much as I’d like to grasp each one and never let go, I know that such a task would be impossible. I try to convince myself that pictures and journal entries will somehow capture my experiences in their entirety, solidifying them into tangible objects. But the truth is that I have much less control than I like to think. All I can do is hope that the important memories, the people and places that impacted me in significant ways, will stay.

I remember the feeling of awe and satisfaction after finally understanding a French text following a discussion in French literature class. My teacher’s voice, compelling and passionate, still rings in my ears, and I still grasp every syllable as though it were magic.

I remember exploring Rennes for the first time alongside my new friends, the city’s streets mysterious and charming,
the last rays of the summer sun still casting a yellow glow on the tilted Breton houses. Together, we laughed at our failed attempts to communicate in French, a language then so foreign to our ears. Looking back, I can see how far we’ve come.


I remember walking along the beach on the coast of Brittany with my host family one Sunday afternoon, windblown hair in our faces. The realization that I now have a second family in France came over me like a wave and took me by surprise. Feeling at home in a foreign country is not an easy task to accomplish, but thanks to my French family, it’s one that I’ve been able to achieve.

Ultimately, the physical places one visits are memorable, but it’s the people in them that create the strongest memories. From my teachers to my friends to my host family, the people I’ve met this year have inspired me and opened my eyes to all that I still have to learn.

I am afraid of forgetting. But deep down I know that it’s an irrational fear, as the bonds I’ve formed in the past nine months will never fade away.

Topics: SYA France

Blue Skies and España Architecture - Photos by Katie Bauer

Posted by Carly Thurlow on Fri, Apr 29, 2016

Parque Guell, Barcelona 

Students and teachers in front of the Gaudi facade of                          La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona 
La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona                                                                                                      

Casa Batlló, Barcelona 

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Parque Guell, Barcelona                                                                          Parque Guell, Barcelona 

Group of students in Parque Guell, Barcelona 

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Fundació Miró, Barcelona                                                          Casa Batlló, Barcelona 

Casa Batlló, Barcelona 


Topics: SYA Spain

An End, a Thank You, and a Beginning - A blog by Erin Slichter

Posted by Carly Thurlow on Tue, Apr 26, 2016

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind. A flurry of final papers, tests, and projects greeted us as the finishing markers to the school year. The assessments ranged from analytical, such as an investigation into the SARS crisis in China for environmental science, to the introspective, such as a memoir of our time so far here for English. By far the most exciting projects were our speeches. Each of us wrote a speech in Chinese and delivered it to our classmates, teachers, and host families. We had all done this before at the beginning of the year, so we were excited to see and hear how everybody’s Chinese had improved.

A Final Test of Our Chinese Language Skills 

Among some highlights from the event were a speech devoted to baicai, a kind of Chinese cabbage, by my friend Liza, and another on the complicated science of steel forging by Ian. Kesi, who said she couldn’t think of a topic for her speech, chose to talk about the action itself of giving a speech and how nervous she was to be doing it. Many talked about how they’ve grown in China, what they’ve learned and found about the culture and themselves. I personally talked about getting stared at. One of the most touching speeches was a tribute to our Chinese teacher, Zhang Laoshi, by Kelvin. He thanked her for all the help she’s given him, both in Chinese instruction and in personal matters. By the end of the speech, students and teachers, especially Zhang Laoshi, were in tears. The moment was symbolic of the gratitude all of us feel to our Chinese teachers, Zhang Laoshi, Ding Laoshi, Li Laoshi, and Tie Laoshi. We wouldn’t even be close to where we are now if it wasn’t for them.IMG_2587.jpg

It was awesome to hear the progress we’ve all made in the Chinese language. We were all a bit queasy beforehand, especially because of the video camera set up to capture the event, but I think we’ll all feel lucky to have the tapes later on.

Celebrating the End of School 

To celebrate the end of school, myself and a group of friends decided to go to Ditan, an old park, and then to our favorite  
dim-sum restaurant. I hadn’t been to Ditan before, so I was very impressed. To start with, I got in on discount with one kuai because of my xueshengzheng, student ID. All the flowers were blooming and making the place smell amazing. We meandered through quiet tree plots and peeked through the gates to the central square, which was closed. We strolled past croquet courts and made it to an exercise area, where lots of people were exercising, both old and young. An incredibly fit elderly man put us all to shame on the monkey bars. A group of young wushu trainers impressed us with their skills.

We made a few friends in the park, including a couple that remarked on how tall we all were for our age, a man who turned out to have been a student at BNU #2 in 1962, and a six-year-old girl who wanted to practice her English with us. I also had a conversation in semi-English, semi-Chinese with a man playing the violin. He told me he’d studied his English, which was very good for someone of his age, with two Americans. When I asked how old he was, he laughed and said, “Older than your parents!” He finally said he was 75. He then played Yankee-Doodle on the violin and I sang along.

During dinner, my friends and I talked about our trip to Gansu next week and about our Integrated Learning Project (ILP) projects when we get back. The ILP was a big draw for me from the start and I’ve been looking forward to it all year. Though ‘school’ in the conventional sense is over, we will now begin our projects, working in groups of five until the end of the year on researching and writing about a topic of our choice. My group’s topic is loosely the environment, but we’ll probably narrow it down to sustainability or something even smaller. This project is a great way for us to apply our language and culture skills to a really in-depth study. By the end, we’ll write a 20 page paper on the findings from our research and interviews.

Right now is simultaneously the end of school, a chance to reflect on things so far, and the beginning of a new, final chapter. I hope to make the most of it.

Topics: SYA China

An Incredible Opportunity with Meaningful Results - A blog by William Conte

Posted by Carly Thurlow on Fri, Apr 22, 2016

William Conte comes to SYA from Millbrook School in New York. He is currently a junior and a Campus Reporter at SYA France. Read more of his work here.

France has been an incredible opportunity for me for all the reasons I had not expected. I came here to become fluent in a foreign language and culture, to travel, to do all the things one might expect a student who goes abroad to do. I wanted to leave America, to leave my family and my friends, and to spend a year cultivating myself in all the typical senses. But what I have learned from my experience is so much more important that what I came here to do. Coming here has given me purpose, restored my passions, and taught me who I am.

First of all, SYA has helped me find meaning. I have always been outgoing, but here I have been encouraged to set free my inner adventurous spirit, to get lost in new cities across Europe, and to be incredibly present in everything I do. In the most mature way possible, I feel as though I have nurtured a childlike curiosity that has allowed meWill_Conte.jpg to see life through a brighter, lighter lens. Leaving America, a very forward thinking, innovative culture, and coming to a more past/present culture, such as that of France, has helped me do something I have always had trouble doing: living in the moment. More than ever, I am determined to be happy in my life and put my happiness over all other things.

Before coming to SYA, I was vehemently passionate about the environment, but I wanted to study politics in college. I was scared to commit myself to environmental science because I did not want to limit myself to just the sciences. I love history, languages, foreign policy, and so many other things besides science. Since coming to France, however, I have been inspired, largely by my environmental science teacher here, but also by the COP21, climate change agreement, held in Paris, and merely my experience living abroad away from the United States, to commit myself to my passion and study environmental studies. In France, I have also had loads of opportunities to tend to my other passions such as photography, activism, and fitness.

Coming to France has taught me who I am. I think I knew who I was before coming here, but I have now genuinely become who I am. I am confident in being myself. The comforting, warm environment of SYA has accepted me as who I am, and this acceptance has made me happier. I have metaphorically stepped out of the shadows and become one with myself.

I would like to thank the SYA program, especially Mr. Brochu and all my teachers at SYA, for creating this incredible experience. To prospective or future students, I encourage you to make the leap and take advantages of all of the unknown advantages SYA has to offer.


Topics: SYA France

Calling All Future SYAers! - A blog by Charlotte Mines

Posted by Carly Thurlow on Thu, Apr 21, 2016

Charlotte Mines comes to SYA from Concord Academy in Massachusetts. She is currently a junior and a Campus Reporter at SYA Spain. Read more of her work here.

Calling all future SYAers, I’m going to give a list of “consejos” and general weird things about Spain, in hopes that some of you will find it useful next year.

You will need less stuff than you think, all those “just in case” clothes your mom wants you to bring; don’t do it. You will buy things here. And then you will have to repack it all. By yourself. Think about that.

As a “Jota” representative, make sure you cross the river at some point during the year. Life on the other side isn’t so bad. And the views of Pilar at sunset are killer from the bridge.

You will learn to love coffee. This is a given.

Snacks are not a concept in Spain the way they are in America. Your traditional options are pastries or baguette. However, I suggest visiting Rincon or an eco-store to stock up on some of your favorite foods.

Unless you’re some sort of superhuman, the temptation of Criollo or Canfranc pastries will overcome you. One pastry a day is pretty much mandatory, but up to three is acceptable. And if there’s an AP Lit test, try for under six!

There is a store in Atocha that sells jumbo Snickers bars and Oreos cheaply. Take note. Tastes of America is really expensive, so use your travels to stock up on you’re favorite American snacks.

Learn how to say no to more food. This is crucial.

Don’t assume that you will be able to communicate competently in Latin American Spanish. That is a different world, ten cuidado. Not everything translates well.

If you happen to befriend a Spaniard who speaks English really well, which is not common, but can happen, resist the temptation to talk in English all the time. It is so hard not to, but worth it if you put in the effort.

Find a Spanish kid to text with. This will give you excellent slang Spanish, which is impressive.

Learn something about Spanish politics and the educational system. It will put America in perspective for you and allow you to make comparisons between euro-socialism and capitalism with firsthand experience.

Pay attention during Cinco Dias, could be one of you’re best experiences of your year.

Make an Instagram account if you don’t already have one, it will be worth is just for this year. Relish the envy of your American friends.

I hope that this is useful, it will make a lot more sense once you come to Zaragoza and get your bearings here. But I guess my best advice right now is don’t freak out, don’t worry. If I can do it, you can do it and there’s absolutely nothing here you’re not ready for. That probably doesn’t mean much coming from someone you don’t know, whose already mostly through this experience. But, you’re gonna kill it, Spain’s a blast.


Topics: SYA Spain

America from Abroad: What I’ve learned about my home - A blog by Danielle Kaye

Posted by Carly Thurlow on Fri, Apr 1, 2016

Danielle Kaye comes to SYA from Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood, CA. She is currently a junior and a Campus Reporter at SYA France. Read more of her work here.

Ironically, I’ve learned more about my home by leaving it than by living in it.

It feels strange, almost unnatural, to write these words as I sit in my French bedroom, 5,700 miles away from sunny Los Angeles and an ocean away from the Statue of Liberty. Part of me feels like a liar, a fake American. How can I claim to have learned about my own country from so far outside its borders? If I’m not physically in the U.S., eating pancakes and experiencing the culture first-hand, how can I possibly discover it?Danielle-Kaye-Web-2.jpg

The truth is, living abroad has somehow changed my perspective on my own home.
At first, I thought it might be due to the physical distance; as they say, distance makes the heart grow fonder. But it’s not just fondness for the U.S. that I’ve acquired in the past months. Rather, it’s a measure of comparison, a peak into our country through a foreigner’s eyes. I was fairly confident in my knowledge of America before moving to France. Now I’m not so sure.

It’s not that I was wrong. The food, the politics, the history, the music…all of the defining aspects of American culture clearly do not change by packing up and hopping on a plane. And it’s not that I was oblivious. I was aware of America’s problems, like childhood obesity or gun control. But what was missing was an alternative point of view in order to bring to light aspects of my country that had previously been undetectable.

For example, by comparing French and American societies, I now better understand how new America is and how recently it was created. French culture is largely based on long-lasting traditions, from cheese courses after every meal to the importance of spending Sundays with family. Seeing and experiencing these traditions first-hand has made me realize that as Americans, we lack this deeply rooted sense of nationality. We come from a young country. It’s true that there’s a sense of patriotism in the U.S., but what we don’t have is the same level of national unity. The French know who they are as a people, whereas Americans continue to struggle with identity.

At the same time, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that in America, individuality is often valued above conformity. At school and at home, we are generally encouraged to pursue our passions and express our opinions, regardless of whether or not they are shared by others. Although this is of course not always true, American culture is more often than not supportive of innovative, out-of-the-box people and ideas. I’ve noticed that in France, the same cannot be said. Looking around the public bus on my way to school each morning, I always notice the same thing: all of the girls are dressed identically. The same New Balance tennis shoes, the same oversized scarf, the same black leather jacket. And I’m pretty sure it’s more than just a coincidence. Even the fashion reveals an important difference between the French and American outlooks.

Living abroad has showed me the importance of perspective. I now see that it’s impossible to gain a full image of a country – or any place, for that matter – without leaving it. Just as it’s difficult to judge oneself of one’s own work, it’s hard to see one’s native country through only an insider’s eyes. For better or for worse, I feel like I now have a fuller grasp on what it means to be American.

Learn more about our high school study abroad programs today! 

Topics: SYA France

Experiencing Chinese Culture Outside of Beijing - A blog by Yumna

Posted by Carly Thurlow on Thu, Mar 31, 2016

Educational travel is an integral part of our high school study abroad curriculum and an important way to help our students understand a China that is both impossibly large and amazingly diverse. SYA's trips are designed to give our students an in-depth look at parts of the culture that are unknown to all but the most seasoned traveler. 

Thirty-Six Hour "Slumber Party" 

When I was told the train ride to Yunnan would take thirty-six hours, I pictured agony: no daily shower, cramped space, and constantly shaking walls. Needless to say, I hesitantly woke up the morning of the trip and stumbled to school with my cumbersome duffle bag. I was still joking with friends about how we still had time to turn back while standing at the train platform, unsure if I really wanted to undertake the long journey.

Despite my worries, the train ride was more like an extended pajama party. As soon as I got settled into my bunk-bed along with my other five cabin mates, the pajamas and snacks came out. It wasn’t just SYA students that we hung out with either; fellow Chinese passengers would wander into our cabins, chat with us, watch movies with us, or even watch our intense games of mah jiang (mah-jong). So the train ride passed by pretty quickly as we wandered the halls, stopping to observe a chess game, or heatedly debate the presidential election with our new Chinese friends.   

Welcome to the City of Kunming

Once we waved goodbye and exchanged wee-chat IDs, it was time to disembark and start our adventure in the city of Kunming (昆明). I think we were all surprised to see people strolling on the sidewalk, or leisurely biking down the street. Used to the impatient horns of speeding motorbikes and brisk walking in Beijing,Yumna_Photo_two-064542-edited.jpg the peaceful atmosphere in Kunming was one we never expected to see. Besides it’s calming aura, Kunming had many other unique features and sights; the bird market was definitely a favorite, where one could find any animal. It was hard to leave the market especially as many of us were busy petting the puppies, kittens, hamsters, or birds we desperately wanted to take home. After being herded onto the bus, we headed to Cui Lake (翠湖). We wandered around the lake, looking for park wanderers to answer questions for our Chinese interview homework. Dedicated towards finding the perfect interviewee, we visited tea houses drinking honeyed rose tea and observing multiple mah-jiang games, joined Tai-chi sessions, and attempted to join fan dances. Unfortunately, the fan dance attempt failed as the teacher looked appalled when we sheepishly mentioned our lack of experience regarding the dance. At last, we found someone to interview, conversing in Chinese of course, until we had to leave the park and visit an Autistic Center for children. This was the first I had actually interacted with an Autistic child, and it was kind of amazing to watch specially trained teachers coax children into listening to directions, hone their mechanical skills, and tame their tempers. During music class, I had a “small friend” (小朋友) who I played the tambourine with, and attempted to stop from running towards the food stash (bribery). I was pretty exhausted from all the seemingly random fits of crying, so I hold a lot of respect towards the teachers.

Exploring the Quaint Town of Jian Shui

Unfortunately our stay in Kunming only lasted three days, and we soon arrived a quaint town, Jian Shui (建水) that had a Williamsburg sort feel to it. As part of a scavenger hunt that aimed to force lazy teenagers from their hotel rooms, we were tasked in finding different historic and scenic spots around town. But we were still too lazy to walk and rented a three-person bike to ride around town. It was definitely an exhilarating experience. Yumna_-_Bike_Photo.jpgWe managed to visit all the places on our list including a tofu workshop, where we learned how tofu is made, a cultural square where we bought unglazed ceramic figures to paint, and a purple pottery store.

This would be our last sight of an urban environment for a while; the rest of our trip was filled with hikes and visiting villages. I couldn’t help but appreciate the beautiful nature before me, from rice paddies to mountains in the distance. Many of our hikes ended at a village, where we stayed for the night, partaking in performances around bright fires; we watched traditional dances and songs, reciprocating with the national anthem and popular songs. I’m sure we seemed like an uncoordinated bunch of teenagers singing slightly off-key but we were awarded with enthusiastic applause and flowers (some classmates even received betrothal gifts!) After the night, we retired to our host family homes, drinking bitter black tea paired with an even more bitter fruit designed to sweeten saliva. The night was as eventful, especially as the roosters decided dawn began at 12 am. Despite this, we all woke bright and early, using the squat toilets and dry shampoo, mentally preparing ourselves for the hike to our next village. Although showers were very much anticipated, staying in the villages was a surreal experience; our host families were caring and generous and fed us the most delicious food I’ve had in China so far, though I was honestly very scared to eat whole fish, eyes and everything.

The trip came to an end far too soon, and when the plane came to a halt in Beijing, the shorts and t-shirts that had been donned before were exchanged with thick winter jackets!

Are you interested in SYA China? Learn more about our high school study abroad program today! 

Topics: why study abroad, high school study abroad, SYA China