Ada Shookenuff’s (’23) Experience with International Learning

Shookenhuff with friends abroad.
Photo credit: Ada Shookenhuff

Shookenhuff with friends abroad. Photo credit: Ada Shookenhuff

Rachel Ledoux, Writer

COVID-19 has put many students in an interesting position over the past few years. Many students spent a year learning online or in a hybrid system, and there are some aspects of school life that still haven’t changed. However, one former Bellows Free Academy student, Ada Shookehuff (‘23), ended up attending school in a completely different country than she had originally planned due to the pandemic.

In her sophomore year, Shookenhuff applied to the United World College, an international program that gives students the opportunity to spend two years learning abroad at one of 18 campuses worldwide. This program would carry her to the end of her high school career while giving the many unique experiences that she wouldn’t have had access to in Vermont.

“It’s a really incredible program,” Shookenhuff said. She added, “I don’t think there’s anything else like it in the world.”

Shookenhuff also noted the aid she had received through scholarships for the program.  “The tuition is only as much as you can afford to pay, so [the program] is paying for about 90% of my tuition.”

After being accepted, she was given the chance to choose which school she’d like to attend. Shookenhuff said she chose Japan for its culture and language.

However, a wrench was thrown into the works when issues arose with Japan not allowing foreign exchange students across their borders.

According to Shookenhuff, due to Covid-19 procedures in the country, exchange students were not allowed to come over to study. Because of this, Shookenhuff and her Japan campus classmates began their international experience learning virtually. 

“It was kind of a mess,” Shookenhuff said. She added, “It was still an incredible experience and all, but there were all of these expectations that weren’t really being met in the way I had hoped.”

Shookenhuff described struggles with time differences as well. Japan is about 16 hours ahead of Vermont, so Shookenhuff was in classes from seven in the evening until morning.

“I was basically nocturnal,” Shookenhuff said.

These struggles were furthered by the futile efforts of Shookenhuff, her classmates and the program to get students into Japan. Students were signing petitions and work was being done, but, according to Shookenhuff, obstacles kept arising.

“They would tell us [that the borders would be opening next week], and we’d all be super excited. Then they’d turn around and say, ‘no, sorry, never mind.’ Anybody who had me on social media at the time was watching me have meltdown after meltdown,” Shookenhuff said.

After a couple of months of virtual learning and fighting to get into Japan, Shookenhuff and her peers were faced with an unpleasant situation. They would need to switch campuses in order to ever get the in-person exchange program they had wanted. 

Shookenhuff, and a few classmates, transferred to the Thailand campus, which, despite not being their first choice, seems to be going quite well, according to Shookenhuff.

“It was really sad having to split up our class group and move away from Japan, but I think it was worth it in the long run,” Shookenhuff said. She added, “And now we’re all at our own campuses and doing well.”

As she puts it, the Thailand program has many of its own strengths and opportunities, and she’s excited to be there.

When asked about whether she would have chosen Japan over Thailand now, given the choice, Shookenhuff had this to say:  “At this point, I think I would have to choose Thailand. I’ve just experienced so many awesome things here and met so many awesome people that I wouldn’t have in Japan. I can’t imagine giving that up now,” Shookenhuff said. 

Recently, she and her peers were given the opportunity to help a Thailand community during Service Week. According to Shookenhuff, this week is a way of encouraging students to volunteer and help make the world a better place where they are living.

“The trip I went on was to a school called Yaowawit…It’s this really awesome self-sustaining school and orphanage [in the North of Thailand],” Shookenuff said.

As Shookenhuff described it, it was an exciting trip. 

“We went and taught English to kids [from] ages five to twelve. We [also] did a lot of physical activities with them…[The kids] had school in the morning, and then worked on the school’s farm in the afternoon, which we got to help with,” Shookenhuff said.

Shookenhuff noted the impact she and the other volunteers had on students, as well as the impact the kids had on them.

“It was really, really humbling. These kids share the same clothes, share the same beds. They have nothing that’s just their own. But they’re still some of the happiest kids I’ve ever hung out with,” Shookenhuff said. She added, “For us, we were just realizing how spoiled and out of the loop we were with the way a lot of people live.”

According to Shookenhuff, these new perspectives are some of the things she values most about her studies right now.

“I’m taking math classes with people from every continent but Antarctica. I have classes where I’m the only white person. I have classes where I’m the only one whose first and only language is English,” Shookenhuff said. She added, “It’s really cool to be able to see all of these people so different from me.”

Despite the new opportunities in Thailand, Shookenhuff mentioned a feeling of homesickness and disconnection from Vermont. According to her, it’s been difficult keeping up communication with friends and family in the state due to time zones and her busy schedule.

“My main focus has really just been in Thailand. It sucks, but I don’t have room in my mind for anything else right now. My brain is just not there.”

However, according to Shookenhuff, she’s still invested in the BFA community and how Vermont is doing without her.

“Vermont’s my home, too, and I really hope [everyone] is doing well over there,” Shookenhuff said.

For students interested in learning more about the United World College, you can find more information on their website here.