My family moved to Hoboken in 1970 when I was in first grade with the express desire that my siblings and I be raised in a diverse environment. Coming from our former home in a private lake community in Sussex County, the experience of being a virtual minority in my new Hoboken public school classroom was quite a shock to my young system. In many ways, I feel my life really began the day I walked into my first grade classroom – so different and foreign and…exciting! I was intrigued by the different cultures that surrounded me, and delighted in visits to the homes of my new friends. My peers got a kick out of sharing their families’ traditions with me, including serving up fresh home-made Italian food (including a little wine mixed with water!), or sharing their spicy and delicious Puerto Rican food. In addition to sharing their foods and family life with me, my friends were also eager to teach me the rudiments of their native Spanish or Italian language; I was more than pleased to be their willing student. Even though I was surrounded by this wonderful diversity during my elementary school years, my understanding of “different” was brought to an all new and exciting level the first time I enjoyed an international field trip as a junior in high school. A three-week trip to Mexico with a van full of my boarding school peers was nothing less than transformative; the teenager my parents wished bon voyage to was not the same teenager who returned home just 21 days hence. I was reminded of this experience this past weekend, when, along with 11 host families from All Saints, we waited in excited anticipation for the arrival of our 10 Ecuadorian exchange students and their teacher-chaperone.
Travel, of course, has so many benefits. One of the greatest, in my mind, is the potential it holds for opening our minds to new and different perspectives, cultures and ideas. Mark Twain got it right when he said that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” In the case of my high school trip to Mexico, although I left for my journey feeling like I was a resident of a diverse community and therefore well-versed in differences, I learned that the world is a much bigger place than I could have known or imagined, and that my worldview was more narrow than I thought. I found every aspect of my trip to be at once challenging and thrilling. The colors, the sounds, the music, the culture and the landscape all served to bring my senses, imagination and new ideas to life. At times I felt there was so much to take in, it was as though I could feel the brain cells popping and multiplying in my head to make room for a rush of new ideas and perspectives. It was the most enlivening experience I had had to date, and I likened it to being a kid at an amusement park. Each thing we experienced was more exciting than the next, and the mystery of what awaited us around each corner was a true delight. Of course the experience was not without its challenges, as well. For the first time in my life I knew what it was like to attempt to order lunch in a restaurant with communication skills that were less than fluent in the dominant language. It was humbling, indeed, to return to my peers at our hostel with a pound of soap (el jabón) rather than a pound of ham (el jamón), and the experience has served as a lifelong reminder of how challenging it has been and continues to be for the many generations of people who are brave enough to leave their native lands to make the United States their home.
This week our Eighth Graders have the pleasure of hosting our Ecuadorian friends and in May they will have the experience of going to Ecuador to stay with host families and attend school in Quito. The second year of this global student exchange initiative, I can personally attest to the magic and value of the experience. It has amazed me how open and willing students from both schools are to enter into relationship with one another and to be vulnerable and honest about their ideas and viewpoints. Living together and attending school together for 10 days will provide these youngsters with a life-changing experience that will surely expand their minds and enrich their lives. I asked my new friend, Diego Vitero, the Ecuadorian group’s teacher-chaperone, what he thought about the value of the trip. “The students will be different people when they go home,” he offered. “Especially in their views and their appreciation for different ways of doing things; they will realize that no matter what your status or lifestyle is, we’re all in the same boat, and that makes us human.”
Diego is certainly right. Developing an acceptance, understanding and appreciation of another culture is one of the many benefits of student exchange programs. Other benefits associated with student exchange experiences include:
• Practice or acquisition of skills in a second language • Analytical and problem-solving skills • Ability to see things from difference perspectives • Self-confidence and self-esteem • Maturity • A willingness to tackle new challenges • Sense of accomplishment • Independence • Negotiating group dynamics
These are just a few of the many benefits of a student exchange experience. Educators - and the employers who await our students – agree on one thing: the 21st century requires a sense of cosmopolitanism – an ability to work with a diverse group of people and ideas, the flexibility to see things from multiple perspectives, and the ability to seek new understandings in order to solve ever-changing problems. At All Saints, our student exchange program provides the perfect “classroom” for learning these essential skills for success in our modern world.
One final benefit worth mentioning – the renewed appreciation one feels for their own home upon return. Chinese writer and inventor, Lin Yutang, put it this way: “No one realized how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” I couldn’t agree more.
Thoughts? Comments? Ideas? I’d love to hear them! Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.