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January 6, 2010

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Americans rear kids as 'global citizens' who live abroad

THERE'S more to education than school - rearing global citizens is important, so more and more American families are taking their children abroad for extended stays. China is one destination. Linda Stewart Ball reports.

When Carla Fisher and her husband announced plans to travel the globe with their adolescent daughters for a year, some friends called them crazy.

Seven years later, with wonderful memories and a book documenting their world trek, the Fishers now seem like global trailblazers.

Despite a recession that may have limited the number of US students traveling abroad in exchange programs, some parents are going out of their way to make sure their children have extended international experiences.

"It's really encouraging to hear that there are a lot of other people who want to educate their kids in that manner," says Fisher, an environmental biologist in suburban Houston, Texas.

Some parents are trying to raise enlightened "world citizens," young Americans who aren't caught up in the race to acquire more stuff. Others want to give their children the skills they'll need to compete globally.

"You always want your kids to be ahead of the crowd," says Christopher Holtby, who works in Dallas and commutes to Mexico where his family moved temporarily in August so their three sons could become bilingual.

Tuition for their private school in Mexico is US$200 a month, per child - a fraction of what it would cost them in the United States.

"This is a global world," Holtby says. "My wife and I understand that if we can give our kids some exposure they'll have more options."

No one knows exactly how many American families are choosing the global education path - about 2,000 US secondary school students studied abroad in exchange programs last year, according to the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel.

But global education consultants say a growing number of parents are traveling for a year or more with their children, in part because technology makes it easy for them to work from anywhere.

"There is a tremendous amount of interest in spending time abroad at all stages of life and increasingly, as a family with children," says Maya Frost, author of a book encouraging families to travel with their children as a way of giving them a truly international education. She knows American families in every corner of the globe who have made that choice.

She and her husband left their Portland, Oregon, suburb for adventures in Mexico and Argentina with their four teenage daughters in 2005.

"The old model of the expatriate family - corporate transfers and diplomats - is still an option, but the new global families are more likely to be moving abroad independently and creating their own work for themselves," says Frost.

Some families who opt for nomadic education are former Peace Corps volunteers, children of immigrants, have adopted a child from overseas or simply feel wanderlust. Computers enable them to continue working while they're traveling, and home schooling makes it easier to pluck children out of traditional schools for some real-world learning.

"There's so much more to education than school," says Tessa Hill, who recently returned to her Houston-area home, after driving her family across North America, Central America and Europe in a motor home for 13 months. "World travel is an education in people, cultures, in language, in travel skills, street smarts and in how lucky we are to live in the United States."

When Hill and her husband began considering extended global travel, their middle child, Charles, 13, was skeptical.

"My first reaction was 'well, are we really going to do this'?" Charles says. "But it did sound like great fun."

Charles says missing his buddies was the hardest part. He stayed in touch via e-mail and made some new friends along the way, playing soccer with kids in France and learning about rugby from youths in Ireland.

The tasty and varied cuisine of other lands was another unexpected joy the seventh-grader extols.

"I'd definitely recommend this to other kids," Charles says. "It was such a great opportunity to see different countries and learn geography a different way."

To make re-entry smoother, most school officials prefer that families work out an educational plan before they leave town. Sometimes tests are given to determine grade-level placement or subject mastery upon return.

"It sounds cliched, but it really opens up your mind and your eyes to the world," says Robbin Goodman, 17, a senior at St Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, who spent his junior year skateboarding across Beijing when he wasn't studying Chinese history and other core subjects.

Had he not already taken a school-sponsored spring break trip with his mom to China in 2007, Robbin says he probably would not have been able to convince his parents to let him go alone for a year.

"I knew I would learn Chinese and all that, but my goal was to have a great time," Robbin says. "What I was shooting for was to make every moment awesome, and it was."

While studying, living or traveling abroad for a year isn't for everyone, it is no longer limited to the rich. Fisher says she and her husband began saving for their trek when their two daughters were really young.

While away, tenants covered their mortgage and the Fishers stayed in hostels and inexpensive apartments, shopped in local markets and prepared their own food.

Fisher says their 13-month international sojourn cost about US$100,000 in 2001-02 with transport.

"The biggest obstacle for those seriously considering going abroad is dealing with those who are against the idea," says Frost.

Parents say the benefits to their children outweigh inconveniences.

"They gain the ability to take risks and to have confidence in themselves," says Liz Perelstein, founder of New York-based School Choice International, a global education consulting firm.

"When we came home (from being expatriates in London), my daughter, who had been painfully shy before we left, said 'Mom, now I know there's nothing I can't do'."


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