High School Program Goes Global

Cheryl B. Scaparrotta writer

When Molly Recka, a junior at Weston High School, journeyed on a one-week trip to China last spring with other Boston-area students, she was prepared for culture shock.

“But what struck me was how similar we are,” she said. “We met with students our age, and we bonded over Harry Potter and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.”

This recognition of similarities—not differences—is precisely what the Weston Public Schools administration is aiming for with the creation of a new position at the high school focusing exclusively on foreign exchange. “We’re thinking globally, because the personal growth that young adults attain from world travel is immense,” explains Anthony Parker, principal of Weston High School. “Studying abroad gives them the opportunity to look at their own country from a different perspective, and see their own life from another vantage point. It truly infuses them and helps them discover who they are, and who they think they want to become.”

The new role of Global Education Coordinator at Weston High will be filled by Kim Young, a history teacher at the school. “My primary goal is to get exchange programs up and running again, and liaise with our sister schools in China, Brazil, and France,” she says.

While Weston’s students have continually participated in foreign exchanges for decades, this is the first time in over half a century that the school will oversee the program. For almost 60 years, the Weston International Association (WIA), an independent, all-volunteer organization, managed overseas ventures. However, a post-9/11 regulation at the U.S. State Department mandates that school officials must administer their own programs.

“WIA is a fantastic organization and they did a marvelous job with the exchanges, but there hasn’t been a clear link between study abroad and how it fits in with our graduation requirements,” Parker notes. “Going forward, we want a better handle on coursework and how foreign classes could apply back home, because it should be linked to our curriculum.”

Young’s responsibilities include making sure all paperwork with the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department is current, and she will also be the school’s connection with the WIA and Weston PTO. “Kim has a lot of energy, and she has experience with world travel, as she helped organize a trip to China last April,” Parker adds.

Parker and Young share a similar vision for global education, which Weston’s school administration endorses. “We continue to see increasing globalization and open trade,” Young emphasizes. “Students need to be successful once they graduate from high school and college, and a main component to their success is competency in understanding other cultures. In the business world, they will likely be interacting with people in other countries.”

Parker agrees wholeheartedly. “Students are coming of age in a global era, so a world view is essential,” he states. “It’s a district priority for us—young people need to experience cultures different from ours firsthand, because it challenges our beliefs, broadens our perspectives, and lets us engage with people different from us. This is an educational priority, especially at a school and district of this caliber.”

Young Men and Women, Go East
When Recka went to China last April, she was one of about 70 students from Weston, Burlington, Winchester, and Newton. The trip took them through the ancient city of Xi’an, the modern city of Shanghai, and to Beijing, a mix of both old and new.

“I’ve always wanted to go to China, and this was the perfect opportunity,” she says. “It was an eye-opening experience because I really learned about different cultures and people.” Recka acknowledged that the trip has had a direct impact on the classes she takes at Weston High. “We visited the Great Wall of China and saw the Terracotta Army, and understanding how ancient these things are gives me a broader view of the world.”

Young says that the dozen students from Weston who journeyed to China with the larger group took classes beforehand in preparation. “They had a good intellectual frame for what they were seeing, so they really benefited,” she says. “I think they also started to see the impact of globalization—they took photos of McDonald’s simply because they couldn’t believe it was there.”

Not that anyone dined at McDonald’s during the one-week tour. “The food in China was really good,” Recka recalls. “Meals were served as a big buffet, not the way Chinese food is typically served here. And even though some of the food looked familiar, I didn’t always know what I was eating, but I put it on my plate anyway.” Likewise, the teens were game enough to try their hand at eating with chopsticks.

The young Americans also took an interest in China’s teen culture, which is similar to that of the West’s. “In Beijing, we went to an international school where the students spoke English really well, and we talked about movies, schoolwork, and tests,” Recka recalls. “Over there, every test they take has the power to determine their future, which I think is crazy.”

In fact, Recka and her travel mates keep in touch with their new Chinese friends over the Internet. “We use Facebook,” she says. China aside, Weston students have historically had a variety of programs from which to choose. Traditionally, a student has spent an entire academic year at sister schools in Rombas, France and Porto Alegre, Brazil. Similarly, those schools have sent their students to Weston for a year to learn about American culture.

One of the most famous foreign alumni to pass through the halls of Weston High School is the author of the 2007 best-seller, French Women Don’t Get Fat. The book, written by Mireille Guiliano, now CEO of Veuve Clicquot, was partially inspired by her stay in Weston in the 1960s as an exchange student from Rombas. She came to Weston slender, but she returned to France overweight.

“Foreign students certainly get a taste of the choices US students have,” Parker declares. “But one of the things I’ve observed is that teens discover they all have similar issues regardless of what country they’re from, and even if they speak a different language, they’re all at a similar point in their life.”

In Brazil, the Weston High exchange program is extremely popular with students. Almost two dozen pupils typically apply for one seat to study in the halls of WHS. And Weston’s reputation is big in China as well. Parker went to Louyang, China last spring at the invitation of a school principal who had visited the Boston area previously. “He would like to send 2,000 of his 5,000 high school students to Weston!” laughs Parker. “Obviously we can’t accommodate that number, but we’re working on a six-week exchange that would host about six students and two teachers in the near future. And we would send two of our students over there along with a teacher.”

Change and a vision of the way forward is certainly in the air, and a commitment to link global perspectives to Weston High’s curriculum is unmistakable, with new frontiers to conquer. During the summer of 2008, a group of thirteen teachers and administrators from the school system traveled throughout the Kabarole District in Uganda to visit recently-established sister schools.

The spring 2008 journey to China was a stepping stone to providing more diverse travel choices for students, according to Young. “We’re trying to break into new areas of the world beyond Europe,” she says. “Previously, when referring to global civilizations, it really only meant Western civilizations such as those in Europe, so China was an attempt to truly embrace a more universal destination.”

Weston is also considering future ties with Latin American countries. “We’ve had programs in the past in Spain, Costa Rica, and Mexico, and we’d like to revive them as well,” Parker says. One particular revamp under consideration relating to all of the programs is shortening the length of time that Weston students go abroad, and vice versa. In the recent past, the term of exchange was one year, but such a lengthy stay can be a preventive factor for some. Leaving for a whole year makes some young adults wonder what they’re missing at school and with their friends and family back home, not to mention college preparations.

Young concludes, “My hope is that this internationally-focused program will continue to grow and expand, with connections in multiple continents. There are rich opportunities for students in all parts of the world.”