Student to Student Cultural Exchange Programs: Making the World a Better Place One Student at a Time (Ambassador Series Part One)
In our first Roundtable Blog post, our Director of Educational Partnership's, Mark Donovan, offers a unique perspective on what creates a strong exchange experience. This is part of an ongoing post series as we gear up for our Summer S.T.E.A.M. Program at Cheshire Academy.
As Superintendent of Schools in Woburn, Massachusetts, I received more than my share of email. Many people (especially people with a product to sell) wanted to meet with me. One day, an email message caught my eye. It was from a woman who used to live in Thailand but now lived a few miles away from my office. She wrote to tell me that she had fifteen middle and high school students visiting from Thailand. They were prepared to share their culture through a stage performance—free of charge. It sounded interesting, so I arranged to meet with the woman who sent the email.
When we met, we both began to see that amazing possibilities before us. Fast forward to about four years later. During that time we hosted more than 150 Thai students in our middle schools and high schools for short-term exchanges. Each of our students was assigned a “buddy” who had the job of making the experience a great one. The cultural exchange program was pure magic.
When we first brought the students together, we wanted to design ways to help them get to know each other and feel comfortable with some from another culture. We soon realized that we didn’t need to do a thing. Time after time, students became friends almost immediately and, within a day or two, formed some permanent bonds. Social media has allowed these students to maintain these bonds years after the program has ended.
Reaching out beyond their own local community allowed our students to connect to a more global community and to see that, despite the many similarities, learning about cultural differences gives students a new perspective on the world. No matter what these students do in the future, these experiences have made them more equipped to take on the world.
As the world becomes smaller—especially through economics and technology—the need for cultures to understand each other is critical. In addition to being deeply involved in these exchange programs, I have been fortunate to have visited Thailand twice, at the invitation of the parents of the students who visited us. It is not an exaggeration to say that I am a different—and better—person because of those experiences.
As retirement approached, I was sure of one thing. I wanted to keep working to promote understand between cultures and make a small contribution to making the world a better place. I was fortunate enough to cross paths with Boston Roundtable, an organization that shares my understanding and passion for working with young people to help them learn about other cultures. I am proud to be part of their team.
Sometimes the problems of the world can overwhelm us and make us feel helpless. But consider a saying that has been traced back to the ancient Chinese: “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” For me, each time we connect a student from the United States to an international student, we light one candle. The light from these candles helps to make our world a brighter place.