Junior year: challenging classes, looming standardized tests, college pressures…the list never ends. For junior Kate Gross-Whitaker, these expectations fueled a fire to leave the country.
Gross-Whitaker spent her fall semester abroad in Beijing, China through a program called School Year Abroad (SYA).
“The mission of School Year Abroad is to provide challenging educational programs abroad that inspire academic excellence, facilitate second language mastery, deepen cultural awareness and global understanding, and offer exemplary college preparation,” according to SYA’s website.
Although uncommon for high school students to go abroad, Gross-Whitaker decided it was the best option for her, at a time when stress is the highest.
“I think that high school in general, but specifically junior year, is very intense and very time-consuming, and I wanted a break from that,” Gross-Whitaker said. “[I wanted] to go do something else and be myself.”
Her sister, freshman Josie Gross-Whitaker, was surprised with her decision to leave.
“We hadn’t really talked about it at all. I kind of felt like it was really out of nowhere,” Josie said.
Contrarily, junior Jane Andersen, a close friend of Kate’s, said she wasn’t surprised when Kate decided to take a gap semester from PHS.
“She’s always been interested in Chinese culture and doing things outside of the U.S., so when she applied to travel to China, I was like, ‘that’s awesome,’” Andersen said.
Kate’s time in China was a combination of staying with a host family and living on campus at a high school in Beijing, translated to English as, ‘The Second High School Attached to Beijing Normal University.’ She went to school with other kids from the U.S., but they shared a campus with the Beijing high school, Kate said.
Her love for the Chinese language spurred her decision to spend five months in China, feeling as though she was at a standstill with her development with the language, Kate said.
“I felt like I wasn’t really going to improve my language skills until I was really able to be in the country, and it was important for me to get that kick start,” Kate said.
Her host family spoke little English, but she was able to communicate with their children, who were learning English in school, Kate said.
“My host sister had been learning English in school since she was young, so she actually knew a ton of vocabulary,” Kate said. “We got really close because she wanted me to help her with English, and I wanted her to help me with Chinese.”
Kate said the Piedmont language programs gave her a strong start in the language.
“I knew a lot of vocabulary, but didn’t realize I knew so much because I didn’t ever have to use it in context,” Kate said.
This newfound independence put her in situations where she had to use Chinese vocabulary in ways she never thought was necessary, Kate said.
“When you go out to dinner, and you’re like ‘I have to figure out how to order,’ or ‘I have to go buy a subway card,’ you have to start using that vocabulary, and using it in a fluent way, in a way that you aren’t learning in a classroom,” Kate said.
These language barriers put Kate in challenging situations, but ones she ultimately grew and learned from.
“I feel like I’m a lot more independent. Most people learn these life skills in college and beyond, but now, halfway into my junior year, I know all these new things,” she said.
Andersen said she noticed Kate’s self-sufficient nature.
“She’s always been particularly independent, and really identifies with world cultures and places that aren’t the United States. She’s always been interested in Mandarin and going outside of her comfort zone,” Andersen said.
Kate’s independence and intelligence make her the perfect person to embark on a journey like this one, Josie said.
“She’s really outgoing, and she’s really smart, so that international school was a really good one for her to go to,” Josie said.
Kate had to take a variety of classes online before she left, to meet her graduation requirements for PHS.
She took a semester of Spanish and a semester of U.S. History this past summer, through an online program, needing a full year of both classes.
While in China, she took 2-3 Chinese classes every day with Chinese
teachers, along with Chinese history (taught in English), Chinese politics, math, and an Honors English class, although most books were about China, Kate said.
Kate advises others to look into studying and traveling abroad.
“I think it gives you a different perspective on the world. Whether you do it in high school, or a gap year in between high school and college, I just think it’s interesting to live part of your life outside of the US,” Kate said