We Are Family

Mary Catherine Thomson enthuses about the long-term success of a sister school program

For a small school community rooted in Sandy Springs, Georgia, Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School has a surprisingly large family, one that stretches far past the Atlanta city limits. Over the past decade, there has been a conscious effort to promote a school community that is increasingly connected with the surrounding world, and a big part of this global outreach has come through strong foreign exchange programs. These programs have become a part of the school’s culture and have grown to include sister schools in Japan, France, Argentina, and South Africa.

This year, upper school students will once again participate in cultural exchanges with four different schools. Already, groups of students have played host to Japanese, Argentinean, and South African students as well as traveled to our sister school in France. Two more trips are scheduled for this summer, when students will venture to sister schools in Japan and Argentina. These travels involve students in grades 9–12 and mark new and exciting chapters in these ongoing interschool relationships. The faces may change, but the larger goal of these programs — promoting cultural exposure and fostering new friendships — remains the same.

Given the current strength of our foreign exchange programs, it might be surprising to note that they are still relatively new. Just fifteen years ago, the idea of a sister school was still, for lack of a better word, a foreign concept. The first formal foreign exchange wasn’t established until 1999, when Holy Innocents’ welcomed the Asahigaoka Senior High School in Sapporo, Japan, as its first sister school. A group of students and faculty made the first trip to Japan that summer, meeting the Japanese host community and jumpstarting a tradition that remains strong even today.

The start of the Japanese program played a significant role in the development of our school’s exchange initiatives. Practically speaking, the Japanese program set a strong precedent, but more importantly, it created the inspiration that fueled all of the foreign exchange programs that would eventually follow. The power of the experience deeply touched many members of the first groups that traveled to Japan, among whom was our current foreign-language teacher, Gerard Gatoux.

The program itself was very influential for Gatoux and strengthened his dedication to exposing students to different world cultures. At the time of the trip, Gatoux, who was born in Béthune, France, was already well traveled. He moved to the U.S. in 1971, following his French military service, to attend college. Since then, Gatoux has traveled extensively, and traveling remains one of his true passions, so he was extremely excited when Dr. Grosbeck gave him the opportunity to be part of the Japanese program. “I knew [the program] was going to be successful and wonderful, and I ended up falling in love with the Japanese culture,” recounts Gatoux.

His experience with the program granted him much more than simply an appreciation for Japanese food and culture — it also shaped his vision for the future of foreign exchange programs at the school. “I saw how successful the Japanese program was, and I didn’t see why we couldn’t do that for all the languages at our school,” he explained.

Over the past ten years, Gatoux has acted as the driving force behind the exchange programs at Holy Innocents’. After several years of involvement in the Japanese program, he began looking for ways to expand, keeping in mind his goal of creating a network of multiple exchange programs within the school. The next sister school was established in 2006 with the Lycée Louis Bertrand in Briey, France. Shortly after, in 2008, the HIES family grew once again to include the school Carmen Arriola de Marín, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The most recent addition is the Groote Schuur High School in Cape Town, South Africa. The formation of the South African program was especially significant, given the fact that it was prompted largely by Holy Innocents’ alumna Chrissy Orangio (‘05), a former student of Gatoux’s, who was studying at the University of Cape Town. Although Orangio was not able to participate in any of the exchange programs during her time at HIES, she was still able to experience the power of travel through the trip she took to Mexico led by Gatoux.

Although each exchange program offers a slightly different experience, they all have similar structures and objectives. First and foremost, each program is centered around the homestay experience. Students spend weeknights and much of the weekends with their hosts, granting them the opportunity to experience the everyday life of their host families, which Gatoux argues is a positive, and distinctive, element of the trip. “School is fine and wonderful, but what happens after school is just as valuable as the time spent in school. With homestays, you get much more culture, and you get to learn what can’t be taught in school or experienced in hotels.” Similarly, when students from the sister schools come to Atlanta, they are paired with school families for the same purpose.

The homestay experience may be a defining point of the programs, but that doesn’t preclude students from enjoying the more “touristy” side of travel. Activities such as sightseeing, shopping, and dining are still important parts of the programs’ itineraries.

Each site offers unique attractions, and through the exchange programs, students have had the opportunity to see things like the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, the Golden Buddhist Pavilion in Kyoto, the historic cities of Metz and Nancy in France, and the La Boca neighborhood in Buenos Aires. As an added bonus, students get to experience all of these sites with their host students — natives of the area. The roles are then reversed when students from sister schools travel to Atlanta.
All the elements of the foreign exchange programs — the home stay, the sightseeing, the relationships built between the students - when combined, are what make the programs such unique experiences. But what also sets the exchanges apart from other foreign travel opportunities are the distinct benefits they offer.

On the most basic level, the programs (with the exception of the South African exchange) have a major impact on the language abilities of the students. Unlike other travel programs that do not involve homestays, these programs force students to totally immerse themselves within another culture. The French and Spanish exchanges especially, which typically attract students taking courses in those languages, greatly improve students’ proficiency levels both in speaking and understanding the languages. Senior Ross Waters, who participated in the French exchange, felt that the program had a large impact on his French skills. “I would say that going to France gave me a purpose to continue studying French. At the beginning of the trip I made lots of mistakes with verbs and vocabulary, but the program helped me to be open to making mistakes. I was much more confident and fluent by the end.”
The programs grant other benefits to students in addition to advancing their language skills, including exposure to global perspectives and the development of a greater appreciation for different customs and traditions. Ultimately, though, the aspect of the exchanges that students and teachers alike find, hands down, to be the most rewarding is the strong relationships that are formed during the programs.

Over the course of just one or two weeks, students become incredibly close friends with their hosts and develop relationships that in many cases last far past the trip itself. As math teacher John Taylor, who is currently involved in the Argentinean exchange, explains, the process is so fast it is almost hard to believe without experiencing it firsthand. “I will admit, when I first became involved, I didn’t think any real connection was going to happen. But after watching the students, you could tell they were making potentially these lifelong bonds with people from across the world.”

Even though Holy Innocents’ students and students at the sister schools come from different countries and varying backgrounds and often speak different languages, they are still able to make lasting connections. Part of the beauty of the programs is that they show students how similar they are, despite differences on the surface. For senior Natalie Kessler, this point became clear very quickly while hosting her Argentinean student, Palo. “We were just lying around on a Saturday eating a bag of baby marshmallows, and I remember thinking, this is what I do with my regular friends. There was really no difference between us, other than that she spoke Spanish way better than I did,” laughed Kessler.

The development of new and strong relationships is not limited to students. The programs have also given many teachers the opportunity to build lasting friendships with fellow educators from the different sister schools. Holy Innocents’ math teacher Meredith Many commented, “Well, I don’t teach French, but because of the program I now have a very good friend whom I get to see once every other year,” referring to Martine Faye-Gallinnati, the English teacher at the sister school in France. Many also added that from a more academic standpoint, “When I traveled to France, I got to talk to the other teachers and see what their school was like, and use this as a basis of comparison back at home.”

While other elements of the foreign exchange programs, such as the sightseeing and dining, add excitement and interest, what distinguishes the programs as truly meaningful experiences are the personal relationships that are formed. Especially in today’s world, where technology like Facebook allows international communication in a matter of seconds, staying in touch after the program is very simple. For Gatoux, watching students build these strong relationships with individuals from entirely different cultures has been one of the highlights of his experience with the programs. “That has been one of my greatest joys, to see students staying friends with the host brothers and sisters, and even going back after they graduate.”

The current foreign exchange programs have been widely successful, but even so, Gatoux is always looking for ways to improve the overall experience. The major long-term goal for the programs is to establish a sister school on every continent over the next five years. There are also hopes to achieve somewhat smaller goals, such as establishing longer homestay opportunities and getting more teachers in a wider range of departments involved in the exchanges.

For Gatoux, though, the real goal is simply for the programs to carry on. “I hope that they will continue, and continue to be successful way after I’m gone.”

Over the course of fifteen years, countless students have gained access to other cultures and developed lifelong friendships in the process. Because of the distinct benefits that these programs offer and the unique experience they provide, they have earned a distinguished spot in the Holy Innocents’ community. Together, the foreign exchange programs have helped to extend the school’s community past the confines of Sandy Springs and have created a globalized family that will hopefully continue to grow in the future.

Annie Bennett: French Program
My experience with the French foreign exchange program has been amazing. As a freshman, I learned that HIES had a sister school in Briey, France, and each year the schools alternate between hosting and visiting each other. With my love of the French language and culture, my family couldn’t have been more excited when I brought up the idea of hosting a French girl. Her name, Gilliane, was quickly shortened to “Gigi” by my family. I will admit, meeting someone new who speaks a completely different language can be a little intimidating at first, but I have never met people more excited and passionate about learning English! Not only did Gigi excel at English, but my French also improved tremendously, and we began to bond over shopping, baking, music — all sorts of things. Gigi became both a close friend and a part of my family, and while her leaving us was difficult, I couldn’t have been more excited to stay with her family in France the following year. Our trip to France was one of my favorite international travel experiences, as we spent our spring breaks experiencing a new country, culture, and set of traditions. Over the course of a week, we visited our sister school, went skiing on an indoor “mountain,” went to underground mines, shopped at the French markets, and much more. The level of hospitality we received from the families was incredible, and the host parents were so kind and generous to us. Since visiting, I’ve participated in the exchange one more time, hosting a friend I made while visiting the sister school, Deborah, as a junior. Anyone who’s ever participated in any of the foreign exchange programs knows that saying goodbye is the worst part, but we all try to keep in touch as much as possible. The memories made and experiences shared with new friends are absolutely unforgettable, and I’d encourage any student to get involved with such a life-changing program!

Yasmine Hicks: Japanese Program
I’ve been intrigued by the Japanese and their beautiful country and culture since I was a young girl. When I received the incredible opportunity to be a part of the Japanese exchange program, I was absolutely thrilled; I jumped at the opportunity to satisfy my desire to travel to the charming country that is Japan. One cannot deny that the American culture is very special and unique; however, it was such an honor to see a glimpse of the Japanese culture, as it is vastly different. For the first week of my foreign adventure, I completely immersed myself in Japanese culture. My classmates and I devoured exotic foods, visited historic temples and shrines, shopped in quirky stores and boutiques, and trekked all over Kyoto. Needless to say, I grew very close to my classmates while abroad. We were experiencing something unlike what we ever had before, together. I believe experiencing different things inevitably brings people together.

During the second week of the program, I lived with a Japanese family. I’ll never forget the moment I met Anna: my hilarious, sweet, intelligent, and beautiful Japanese exchange partner. As I lived with Anna, I learned just how compatible two people can be. Although she lived thousands of miles away from me, we clicked instantly. Within hours of meeting one another, we were making jokes, exchanging music, and roaming all over northern Japan. It was not long before we began calling one another sister.

While in Japan, I learned a lot about Japanese culture, but I believe one the greatest things I learned was the importance of giving, and doing so unconditionally and with lots of love. In the span of a week, I gained another family.

Six months after I left Japan, Anna traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, and lived with my family. My mother, my sister, and I were more than thrilled to welcome such a beautiful young lady into our home. We made memories that will surely last a lifetime as we showed Anna around Georgia and showed her different aspects of American culture.

I believe family is forever. When Anna returned to Japan after living with my family, I had no doubt in my mind that I would speak to her again. Anna and I speak regularly about nearly everything, just as sisters do. I would have never imagined that I would have gained such an incredible addition to my family. My mom also asks about Anna daily, as she considers her to be another daughter who just happens to live halfway across the world.

I will forever cherish the opportunity I received to travel to Japan and live amongst such a beautiful group of people in a remarkable country. I now have wonderful stories to tell for years to come, not to forget to mention an amazing Japanese family whom I will love forever.

Jordan McBride: Argentinean Program
I never knew how similar to yet different from someone thousands of miles away I could be until the Holy Innocents’ foreign exchange program I participated in with students from Buenos Aires. Once Mr. Gatoux told our class we were doing it, I was immediately excited, because I had always wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country. Never did it occur to me that the trip would be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

We started off with a simple pen-pal relationship with the students. Once a week, we would write to various Argentinean students. We talked to the entire class and immediately developed connections with them. To be honest, I thought the students were going to be polar opposite from us and it was going to end up being somewhat awkward; however, this opinion soon changed when, after a couple weeks of writing to each other, we already had inside jokes between our two classes.

At first, I was nervous about eventually having to choose whom I wanted to be matched up with: the girl would stay at my house for two weeks and I would eventually stay at hers that following summer. How was I supposed to pick? There was probably only going to be one girl I clicked with, if that. Words can’t describe how wrong I was. By the time that rolled around, I was finding it difficult to choose simply because I had already developed individual relationships with each and every one of the students. I was shocked to learn how similar they were to us, even though we were thousands of miles apart.

Months passed and we were all anxiously awaiting their arrival... it was all we talked about for two weeks straight. Every day, we kept growing closer to these students, making a Facebook page so we could easily talk as a group and even Skyping with them when we could. You could say we were like little kids on Christmas Eve; it was the most anticipated event of the school year. I can still remember all of us circling around Alexandra Juneau’s phone waiting for Mrs. Stroman to call to inform us of their arrival. The second that phone rang, we sprinted to the front of the school and saw the HI buses pull up. They were finally here!

The second they stepped off the bus, we bombarded them, already knowing each of their names. It felt like we had been friends with them for years, even though this was our first time meeting in person. We could hardly contain our excitement for the two weeks we had with them. From touring Atlanta to doing cheerleading stunts to dancing at parties, there was never a dull moment. We spent every waking second together. In those short two weeks, I felt like I had fifteen new best friends. The day they left was probably one of the saddest days of my life. Looking around, I could see tears slowly falling from everyone’s eyes when they started to board the bus back to the airport. The only thing keeping us happy was knowing we would see them in four short months for our trip to Argentina.

I did not think our experience with them could get any better, but I was wrong again. Seeing the students for a second time was like we had never left. The trip was absolutely amazing, and I was able to completely immerse myself into a new culture. The Argentineans are incredibly kind and compassionate, and it was prevalent everywhere we went. I learned more about the Spanish language and life in general in the two weeks I spent there than I had ever in my life. To this day, I still consider that foreign exchange program the greatest experience I’ve ever had. I still talk to the Argentineans every day, and we are already planning on having a reunion with them in the next few years. I will always remember the relationships I made and the diverse culture of Argentina. Narrowing this expression to one page is not even enough to fully express the happiness, friendships, and knowledge I acquired over this time. Their stay here and my trip overseas represent the two most unforgettable aspects of my high school career.

Jennifer Corradi: French Program, from the French Perspective
Four years ago, I had the chance to meet amazing people from Atlanta. A group of students from HIES came to our little town in northeastern France. I hosted a girl named Avery for about ten days. We talked online before, but we did not really know each other. I was looking forward to meeting her, as well as the other students, in person. On the day of their arrival, we were all a little bit shy and felt awkward — I guess a long journey and hours of jetlag did not help our American friends. However, we soon overcame the language barrier and got along really well. Avery was not only an exchange student that we received; she became a friend to me. My family also enjoyed having her at home. We were used to hosting exchange students from Germany, but we had never met any American students before. We had interesting discussions, comparing our respective cultures. Even today, my parents still ask me about Avery.

A year later, it was our time to visit them in Atlanta. I was really excited about this trip. I had been in the U.S. once before, in Pennsylvania, which was very different from Georgia. I discovered a lot about the American culture during these ten days. Of course I learned about American history and the school system, but more importantly, living in an American family for ten days made me understand more deeply the American “way of life.” I have to say, I got the chance to be hosted by a wonderful family. Avery’s parents and siblings were very nice to me during my stay and took very good care of me. It meant a lot to me, especially since I was not used to being away from home for such a long period of time.

This exchange brought me a lot; it was an enriching human experience. I firmly believe that this kind of program should be carried out more often. This exchange allowed us, middle-class French students from a small town, to broaden our horizons. We may not have had this opportunity otherwise. It enabled both sides to go beyond the stereotypes we had had before.

On a more personal level, this experience also influenced and reinforced my decision to travel and study abroad. And here I am, writing this paper from the top of the Canadian Rockies, during my student exchange year in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Mary Catherine Thomson is Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School’s 2014 valedictorian. She received a 2013 Outstanding Senior in French award from the American Association of Teachers of French. The American Society of the French Academic Palms has also selected awarded her with its 2014 Summer Scholarship. Mary Catherine also helps younger, underprivileged students in the Horizons Program on campus (she is a former board member) and was part of the inaugural Youth Leadership Sandy Springs class.