On Mountains: Letter to Parents from Dr. Aric Visser


At the one-month mark, Head of Schools and Programs Dr. Aric Visser wrote a letter to our current parents. You might be surprised by what he has to say about the SYA experience, and his single request for SYA students today.

Dear Parents,

I wanted to touch base with you as we approach the one-month mark of your child’s SYA journey. I suspect you have noticed changes in your child’s reports back home. The initial “wow factor” of being in a new place is fading and the reality of the first word in SYA’s name, “school,” is settling in. You may be hearing of their struggles to understand a conversation held in class or about the difficulty adjusting to a different way of learning math. You may hear about their amazing connection with their host family or their difficulty in making that connection. You likely hear that the experience is “great” and “overwhelming” in the same breath. Sharing laughs over Skype one day and consoling your child on Facetime the next is all very normal for this process — immersion in a new culture can be a rollercoaster of emotions.

As this school year starts, I also find myself in a new place. My family and I have moved to Madrid, providing me with strategic access to a major airport and my children with the opportunity to study in English — something that my middle school-aged daughter has never done. I am particularly pleased with the ability to quickly and easily work in person with SYA Resident Directors and faculty.

As I sit in a new office and in a new place, I look out the window and can see, just beyond the edge of the city, the mountain range that cuts off Madrid from northern Spain. The range rises 2,400 meters high and provides a point of reference for all Madrileños. 

Growing up on the shores of the third-largest freshwater lake in the world, I have discovered that the way I orient myself is in relation to large natural objects — like that lake, the ocean or the big mountain range outside of my window. I didn’t know this about myself until the first time I moved to a place that didn’t have one of those markers, where I found myself lost — physically and emotionally. I learned that I am drawn to these objects and I feel empty when they are missing. But again, it took me going to a place outside of my comfort zone to learn even where my “comfort zone” began and ended. 

Since moving here I have become a bit obsessed with the mountain outside the window. Just like a big body of water begs to be surfed or swam in, a mountain begs to be climbed — and since we moved, I have been trying (and failing) to climb it.

Almost every day I strap on a pair of trail running shoes and head out the door. While I ran cross country and track in high school, and have coached both sports, I am not a particularly gifted trail runner. I’m more of a slow, clumsy, six-foot-five, middle-aged runner — which translates into me spending a fair amount of time not on my feet (I fall down — A LOT). Still, less than a mile from my house, I leave the city behind and look out over what appears to be nothing but trees and fields until the mountain abruptly rises from the dry landscape. It looks like a straight shot to the mountain. It’s not.

Like many cities of five million people, the outskirts are littered with private property, rivers, cliffs, highways and train lines. These trails are no exception. After a dozen or so excursions, I realized that my route to the mountain would be through a winding path of obstacles and dead-ends — that it would be way more difficult to get there than I expected. In those first dozen runs, many of them ended at what I began to refer to as “the big wall,” a seemingly-endless barrier in the trail that appeared to be at least 10 miles long. If I kept a running log, it would look something like this:

Run 5 (6 miles) - can’t figure out how to get across the third train track.
Run 7 (5 miles)- got over the train track, run ended at the big wall
Run 11 (9 miles) - Fell down twice, once in a bunch of briars. Saw at least 1,000 rabbits. Thought I found the corner of the big wall. I was mistaken.

Since those first dozen runs, I have been out many times. Some runs have been as short as four miles, other as long as 14. I have almost memorized the rail system and have gotten lost a dozen times — well, not seriously lost. I can always see the mountain, and I am no less determined to get there. I say this understanding that it is entirely possible that I never will.

I have come to learn that the big wall is not 10 miles long, but over 50 miles long, and the land it encircles is only open to members of the royal family and their guests. I don’t think I will ever be seeing the other side of that wall. That said, there does exist a way around it (I have been told), but it may be beyond my ability to navigate the maze of trails, get past the wall, make it to the top of the mountain and get home in one piece.

I have also decided that I don’t really care if I get there. Being on the trails, lost and confused, is one of the few places where I can really think. I don’t listen to music. I just put one foot in front of the other and think. I structured most of my PhD research this way, and it is a resource that I go back to often. It’s how I wrote this letter to you today.

At this point you may be asking yourself why I am writing you to tell you some long and drawn-out story about trail running. (A fair question). At the risk of sounding overly philosophical, I would like to request something from all of you. The next time you speak with your son or daughter and they tell you about the project they are working on, or the new friend they met, listen to them and try to figure out if they have a mountain. And if you can’t, ask them what their mountain is. Ask them about a goal they have that is so important they don’t care if they fall down, get lost or repeatedly end up facing a big wall as they try to reach it. And if they don’t have a mountain, ask them to pick one and point their compass in that direction, fully understanding they may never get there.

Your child’s mountain doesn’t need to be the same as their friends', nor does it need to be one that fulfills some sort of study-abroad stereotype. Maybe your child’s mountain is being mistaken for a native speaker or developing a friendship with a local. Perhaps it is building up the courage to speak in public. Or possibly it’s feeling comfortable with his or her host family or learning to use a paper map. What the mountain is isn’t important. Having a mountain is important. 

The first month of this experience is now behind us, and you will notice that each month feels shorter. Soon your son or daughter will be back home. Trust me, it goes that fast. When our students return, they will have navigated through numerous obstacles, and if they are lucky, they will have climbed their mountain. But even if they don’t quite make it to the mountaintop, they will have had the invaluable experience of persistence and dedication to a singular goal. They will have put one foot in front of the other, and they will be better off for it. Until that day comes, enjoy the stories — even the hardships — and help us support your child in climbing his or her chosen mountain. We’ll do the same. 

My very best wishes,




Dr. Aric J. Visser
Head of Schools and Programs


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