WEPisode #6: Molly In Italy





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Positive Outcomes for Individuals and Societies

“Personal participation is the universal principle of knowing.” – Michael Polanyi

Student exchange had its genesis more than 70 years ago. Idealistic adults, looking for ways to promulgate peace, set upon a bold and ambitious path to enable secondary students from different nations to share their cultural heritage, language, and worldview with each other. Like many revolutionary ideas, there is a difference of opinion concerning who was first to conceive of and execute such a program. However, we do know that, between 1929 and 1947, small groups of students from the USA and Denmark travelled to other countries to stay with host families. Today, student exchange is a worldwide phenomenon. Each year thousands of secondary aged students take up the opportunity to live and learn with people of different nationalities.

Initially, exchange programs were only available for an entire academic year. Today, Australian students can choose between programs that extend for just a few weeks, to five or six months, or the traditional year. In recent times, short-term programs have become increasingly popular among students and their parents, schools, and government departments.

In order to successfully integrate into their ‘adopted’ countries, students must learn to understand, communicate and cooperate with those around them. Their host families and peers are people born into and shaped by unique patterns of enculturation, and therefore have different ways of viewing and interacting with the world. It takes time for the disjuncture between values, beliefs, behaviours and norms of the host and home cultures to have a meaningful impact on the student. Thus, in order to gain truly meaningful cultural and linguistic knowledge, a longer stay is often advisable.

Indeed, while shorter-term programs offer some benefits for students, profound personal gains tend to result from longer programs such as the traditional year. Generally, it is not until three to five months into a program that students start to master the language. Once they have developed the ability to comprehend without recourse to the laborious processes of translation, their communication becomes more fluid and they gradually acquire the ability to produce spontaneous speech, incorporating colloquialisms and humour. This enables students to cement relationships and participate fully in the host culture. Many join drama and music groups or sporting teams. Invariably, activities that are unique to, or popular within, certain cultures or regions, such as ice hockey, capoeira, handball, cheerleading, dressage, marching bands and the like, provide deeper cultural enrichment and opportunities for personal growth.

It is important for individual participants to understand how their goals and aspirations correlate to the outcomes of short and long-term exchange programs. Sponsors (parents, schools, government) must also appreciate the substantial differences between short and long-term programs. If the goal is for students to return culturally integrated and fluent in another language, they must stay in the host culture long enough to experience a deeper engagement and active involvement with the host community. As Dirkx, Jessup, Brender, Gwekwerere & Smith (2006) concluded, short-term student exchange programs “are often too brief to foster cultural competence or the reworking of a cultural or intercultural identity. Their educative value, however, may well rest with their capacity to foster self-learning and self awareness among participants.”

Short and long-term advantages of student exchange are extensive and include personal as well as professional and societal outcomes. However, most impressive are the personal revolutions in linguistic knowledge, psychological development and cognition. Andrews (1993) assessed five hundred secondary school students after completion of their year-long student exchange programs and found that, “emotionally they made a nine year gain in personality and maturity.”

Anecdotally, we witness many instances whereby students make remarkable leaps in social maturity, from a mindset in which only one right way to interpret a social event exists, to one in which diverse, equally valid, interpretations are acknowledged. A unique relationship among exchange students and members of the host country develops when they enter into regular dialogue. Along with a growth in mutual trust, a deeper understanding of the uniqueness of each other’s point of view is formed.

Throughout the process of adaption to another way of life, the individual learns about the self within the context of both the home and adopted culture. The transitional phase from low self and cultural awareness to high self and cultural awareness has historically been referred to as ‘culture shock’. Now labelled as ‘culture learning’ and ‘intercultural adjustment’, this must take place if the individual is to successfully accommodate the continual demands of living in the host culture (Taylor, 1994 p.154).

Most long-term exchange students develop intercultural competence, cultural knowledge and awareness, knowledge of self and international friendships. For the students who choose non-English speaking countries, there is the additionally remarkable outcome of conversational fluency in a second language.

Much has been studied and written about language acquisition. Researchers from multiple disciplines have tackled the topic but no one theory completely explains the complexity of how we develop the ability to share meaning via speech. Recent innovations in language teaching are based on “practical communication grounded in real world settings” (Lo Bianco, 2009, p. 30). Nonetheless, as there are serious limitations to even the best instructional methodologies for language learning when divorced from culture, there is considerable agreement that the most practical and efficient way to create competence in a second language is from cultural immersion, where the student learns through contextual interactions.

If a student’s goal is language development, student exchange is a remarkable vehicle. It provides the cultural milieu, daily, purposeful interactions with supportive peers, teachers, and host family members, motivation to develop friendships and the one to many ratio (one learner to many ‘teachers’) that is a feature of first language learning. Given six to twelve months in this ideal language-learning environment, motivated students develop considerable language fluency.

Compare this to classroom language instruction that often results, after three, even four years, in students capable of producing only a limited number of phrases. Their inability to participate in the simplest of spontaneous conversations means they cannot operate at even a basic survival level in the real world (Jensen, Sandrock, Franklin, 2007).

Preparation for long-term student exchange programs is a vital component of successful participation. Knowledge of the host country minimises cultural disorientation and allows more rapid cultural integration. Safety and welfare are essential parts of each exchange program and support for the host family and the student is provided as they embark on a journey of mutual discovery.

Teenagers are ideally suited to living and studying overseas:

  1. Governments, recognising the value of student exchange programs, issue visas that allow secondary aged students to live and study overseas for up to twelve months,
  2. Language learning is accelerated by unique social support networks and the rapidity of bonds that are so often established between teenagers,
  3. The earlier students learn a second language, the less their native language is discernable when they converse in the second language,
  4. Teenagers are welcomed into the lives and homes of volunteer host families and exhibit the flexibility necessary to live not only within a second culture but also away from home for a prolonged period of time, and
  5. Advantages accrued enable student to assess their short and long-term goals.

As a result of participation in exchange programs, students commonly express a desire to continue learning about the world at large. Their exchange programs have not only provided them with alternative views of the world but also strengthened their desire to explore them. Thus, it is not surprising that many prominent individuals in government, business, industry, NGOs, international organizations and judiciaries, all over the world, once participated in student exchange programs.

In many parts of the world student exchange organizations are admired for the role they perform and their professional approach in delivering international education to secondary students. Obvious humanistic outcomes have inspired forward thinking individuals to work cooperatively and constructively with student exchange organizations to boost participation figures. Government scholarship programs in the USA and Belgium are administered through reputable student exchange organizations and allow large numbers of students to benefit from the experience of education as a living process.

In the USA since 1983, a congressionally funded program has delivered about two hundred and fifty full scholarships annually for high school students to live in Germany for an academic year. This year, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs launched an initiative to send American high school students to countries with significant Islamic populations (Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Mali, Thailand and Turkey) in order to build bridges between disparate cultures.

In Belgium, a budget of 160 million Euros (AUD$261 million) has been set-aside for 8000 new “immersion scholarships”, allowing secondary students to participate in long-term student exchange programs. This astonishing initiative is from a nation in which the majority of citizens are already bilingual and people from three cultural population groups live side-by-side.

Australian program prices for student exchange programs with registered, non-profit, organizations are considerable. Nonetheless, they fail to reflect the real cost of providing programs and are often subsidized by fees paid by international exchange students studying in Australia. Each year, there are many students who wish to participate in student exchange programs but are unable to do so without additional sponsorship.

Whatever the motivation, the desire by students to be active producers instead of consumers of their education is laudable. The potential accruement of advantages and benefits for individuals and communities from student exchange programs is remarkable. Many would say that these forms of authentic learning opportunities in other lands are necessary in order to promulgate peace and understanding between people of different backgrounds. Thus, it is essential that parents, educators and policy makers continue to encourage secondary aged students to consider long-term student exchange programs. Indeed, as a community, we must remain alert to ways in which we may assist our adventurous youth to learn and discover the world and themselves.

About the author:
Debra Cain B.Sc., Dip.Aud., M.Ed., M.A.(Spec. Ed.) is a former CEO of World Education Program (WEP) Australia.

Andrews, G (1993) Stepping forward, looking back. ABC TV, David Flatman Productions

Dirkx, J. M., Jessup Anger, J. E., Brender, J. R., Gwekwerere, B., & Smith, R. O. (2006). Beyond culture shock: The meaning of affect and emotions in international education experiences. In E. P. Issac (Ed.), Proceedings of the 2006 Midwest research to practice conference in adult, continuing, extension and community education (pp. 43- 48). St. Louis: University of Missouri – St. Louis, Oct 4-6.

Jensen, J. Sandrock, P. & Franklin, J. (2007) The Essentials of World Languages, Grades K-12: Effective Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Lo Bianco, J (2009) Australian Education Review: Second Languages and Australian Schooling. Australian Council for Educational Research.

Taylor, E. (1994). Intercultural competence: A transformative learning process. Adult Education Quarterly, 44, 154-174