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Taking on the world: study abroad

Studying overseas broadens the mind, enriches the soul

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She stood there, bicycle helmet in her hand, looked around and fell in love. It was her first day on the job as an unpaid intern, but she was in the London offices of Tiger Aspect Productions, the British film and television production company that gave the world the hit movie Billy Elliott - and St. Mildred's-Lightbourn School student Catherine Sneddon was pretty sure she had found where she belonged.

After six weeks of faxing, photocopying, fetching ice mocha coffees for leading man James Nesbitt, and herding 40 extras into place for a scene in an aerobics studio, she was certain she had found what she wanted to do with her life.

"I got to skip ahead and see what it will be like for me in the future," Sneddon, 18, said last spring, back in class at her Oakville, Ontario school. Still wide-eyed about the work experience she lined up for herself as part of her school's three-stage external studies program, she's decided to take a three-year television production course in Great Britain.

"I don't think school or university could have prepared me for this," she says, then stops herself and smiles, because it was precisely her school that showed her the way of her future.

Not many people would argue the homily about travel broadening the mind. In countries such as South Africa, Australia, and Poland, students graduating from high school routinely experience what's known as a "gap year" before starting university. They travel abroad to work, perhaps as an au pair helper to a family or as volunteer staff in a British school. Although this hasn't as yet caught on in many Canadian public schools, private and independent schools have long offered their students a variety of travel educational experiences.

Some schools travel and study abroad a centrepiece of the curriculum. St. Mildred's-Lightbourn School has designed a successful and popular multi-faceted, multi-level external studies program.

The process starts early at St. Mildred's-Lightbourn School, where Mandarin is a compulsory subject and classes stop for two weeks every November when the school's S3 students, or Grade 10, experience an overseas exchange program. By S5, or Grade 12, the school has earmarked 220 hours of school time - or two uninterrupted months - for students to participate in a variety of opportunities, including working as teaching assistants in two Beijing schools.

"We want to offer something not easily replicated as a family vacation," says Judy Ross, director of the school's external studies program.

"I think we're the only school who've got it in steps in really formulated programs," she says. "Nobody has it quite on the scale we do."

The Canadian College Italy ( CCI: The Renaissance School) is Canada's only high school located in Italy itself, in this case in a medieval town of 40,000 three hours east of Rome. And, since 1956, Neuchatel Junior College in Switzerland has been a popular destination for students, especially those completing their final year of high school. It is the oldest Canadian high school in Europe; it is also non-profit.

"The recent tensions globally mean it's more important than ever to move forward," says Neuchatel principal Norman Southward. "People tend to cocoon themselves in times of tension, which leads to a lack of understanding when what is needed is a greater understanding of what it means to be in an increasingly complex world.

Then he adds: "It doesn't get much safer than Switzerland."

Nevertheless, Maeve Gamble, 19, from Sarnia, Ontario, was "terrified" when she left for her year at Neuchatel, especially when she walked into the Toronto Pearson International Airport and saw what she thought were 90 other students chatting away with each other like long-lost friends. She was comforted when she realized no one else knew each other, and that morphed into a feeling of excitement when they landed in Zurich and drove to the school. "The country was so cute and clean, typical Swiss. Red and white shutters, flowers in pots. It was so beautiful," she says. Her year at Neuchatel has been "like a dream," she says, what with a bike trip to Germany and school excursions to Burgundy and Paris. "I definitely feel more cultured."

Suzan Handley's globetrotting family was living in Belgium when she left for Neuchatel Junior College.

But she, too, was anticipating spending her school year in Switzerland. "When we first got here and got off the bus, I felt a definite excitement," Handley, 19, says in a phone interview from Switzerland. "It looked different and the air smelled different."

Simon Anderson's parents both attended Neuchatel Junior College in 1969. "They met here," the 18-year-old says. "It's kind of amusing."

It was also kind of inevitable he would spend a year there as well. He's not complaining. "I have learned how much there is out there and how different it is from North America," he says. Not only is he a convert to the cafe society and the European custom of two-hour lunches, he says he also appreciated the opportunity to watch televised coverage of the American-led war on Iraq from a European news media perspective.

And that is typical and palpable, Southward says. "When they are travelling and interacting with their pension families, they see the differences, even if sometimes it's only the nuances."

That is why CCI: The Renaissance School accommodates its 120 students in one of four family-style residences in Lanciano, Italy, creating what is in effect a house system and a secure place from which the students can explore the culture all around them, as well as maintain ther rigorous study schedules.

"There is a very close connection between the town of Lanciano and Canada; it was liberated by Canadians," says Lou Zeppieri, a Toronto-based admissions officer for the school. The school itself is a former monastery, which was used as a hospital  during the First World War for wounded Canadian soldiers.

"Old men approached me on the street to tell me how (the liberation) affected them," says former student Gillian German. "You can't help but have your eyes opened."

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