GoAbroad Interview

John Foster - Assistant Program Director

John Foster - Assistant Program Director

John is an alumnus of a SPI program and as such knows of the true transformative power studying abroad in high school can have. John studied in San Sebastian, Spain and is now one of SPI’s directors for programming in Spain. While he started out as a geography enthusiast, he grew to have a deep passion for languages. John channels this passion for cultures, languages, and all things map-related to his role as Assistant Program Director at SPI, in order to inspire other educators to encourage their own students to study abroad. He loves having the opportunity to change student’s lives through study abroad, since his own experience with SPI has changed his own life so greatly. Outside of work, John is an avid sailor and enjoys taking advantage of his hometown of Austin - hiking with friends, catching concerts, and eating Tex-Mex, constantly.

Leading students through La Parte Vieja in San Sebastian
Leading students through La Parte Vieja in San Sebastian.

You started studying maps at the age of 11 before eventually studying abroad in Spain. What prompted your love of geography and travel at such a young age?

When I was around four or five, my Mom gave me a children’s book of maps. I looked through it every night before I went to sleep, that and the 1987 World Book Encyclopedia. I guess it was wanting to know what is out there that sparked my interest in geography at such a young age. People, in my opinion, tend to get so wrapped up with what is around them, and travel takes you out of that and is a window to experiencing the billions of different stories happening simultaneously around you.

Your role as Co-Director at SPI involves a lot of advising and program facilitation. What else do you do on a daily basis?

I work mainly with educators and those in the educational management industry to spread the word about studying abroad in high school. 

What makes an applicant a good fit for an SPI program?

We have a really diverse base of students that participate every year. Something I’ve found that most all have in common is that they are motivated - linguistically, or in the sense that they want to live within another culture. A good applicant for SPI is a high school student that wants to get out of their routine and experience firsthand things that they have only read about. I think expecting to have challenges to overcome and having a strong goal - what you want to get out of your study abroad experience - is important to fully taking advantage of the opportunity.

High school study abroad is a growing area. How do you extend access and provide opportunities for a diverse range of individuals to be able to participate in your programming?

Studying abroad in high school certainly is growing in popularity, but it is still a niche. What is exciting to see is that more and more students are using crowd funding sources for helping to finance the cost of studying abroad. I think that platform is well suited for high school students because the prospect of studying abroad at that age is exciting for the student as well as for their family and friends. It’s something that is easy for people to support. Also, it’s important that we keep our financial aid opportunities growing with the pace of our organization. Many students have strong motivation to participate but may not have the financial means to travel far and abroad. It’s important that their community and our community support these motivated students.

Can you tell us a bit about how you prepare your participants for their time overseas? Do you provide specific pre-departure programming?

Oh yes, we provide specific and structured pre-departure preparation. Everything from what to pack to online resources for practicing your target language before you leave. We specialize in short-term study abroad, so any and all preparation that students do before they leave really helps them gain the most from their time overseas.

Reverse culture shock is common among students of any age returning from study abroad. How do you help students deal with this after the program is over?

I remember when I came back from my first time studying abroad, the reverse culture-shock hit me hard. It’s tough. We prep the students in their orientation guide for this type of situation. Even then though, I think that readjustment is a personalized process. Every student experiences it a different way. I still talk to students from a few summers ago, it’s cool to see where they go off to college. So I guess the answer would be that we prep them, make them aware that it will be a re-adjustment, and then we just walk them through it personally when they reach back out. 

What is your favorite part about working with SPI?

Studying abroad in high school changed my life and was the best summer ever. Now, my job is to facilitate the same experiences for high schoolers today. That’s pretty cool and it probably my favorite part of my job. I also love working with my colleagues here. They’re awesome. They say that if you love what you do then it doesn’t even feel like work. I’ve got to be honest, there are days where this totally feels like work. Then there are days that you see first hand the impact that your hard work has on shaping a student’s life, that’s an absolute blessing.