SB Students Visit France: A Life-changing Experience

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Thursday March 29, 2012

Over spring break, twenty South Burlington High School students accompanied by two adults went to France. What a way to spend spring break! The trip was coordinated by The International Experience (TIE), the organization at SBHS that coordinates student exchange tours. “This was a life-changing experience for the kids,” said Jackie Stevenson, SBHS administrator and one of the trip chaperones. “Not only did we see all the usual tourist sites in Paris, but we were able to experience French culture” up close.

According to a blog kept by the students on the high school’s website, the trip started off in full swing the moment they arrived in Paris. Every day was filled with new experiences.

The group left on an overnight flight from Montréal to Paris on February 23. Their French guide, Françoise, kept them so busy sightseeing the first day that, by the time they had had a chance to get any sleep, they had already seen L’hotel des Invalides, the Palais Trocadero, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame cathedral and Montmartre.  That was just day one.

During the remaining three days in Paris, the students viewed Impressionist paintings at the Musée d’Orsay and shopped along the Champs Elysées. Although they only got to the second level of the Eiffel Tower, they were rewarded by a great view of Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe.

Half a day spent at the Palace of Versailles was followed by an afternoon back in Paris at the Bastille, the Panthéon and St. Etienne church. Dinner that evening challenged them to try that delightful French delicacy called “escargots,” also known as snails.
The final day in Paris was spent at the Louvre and the Tuileries Garden, getting in some last minute shopping and floating down the Seine on a boat in the evening. But their experience had only just begun.

On February 28th, the group took a train from Paris to Perigueux, a town in southwestern France near Bordeaux. There they were welcomed by the families of the French exchange students who had visited South Burlington last fall. Since friendships had already begun in the Green Mountain State, arriving in Perigueux was like being greeted by old friends. Each SBHS student was welcomed by their individual host family and spent the next 12 days as part of that family. Here’s where the real cultural immersion began.

“It was a really cool experience,” said Chatham Wilking, 10th grader. “We got really close with our exchange students and really got to see their culture. We went to school with them and had a typical teenage experience in a different country.”

In order to qualify for a trip such as this through TIE, students must be enrolled in at least the second year of their language program by the time they apply to go. Besides proficiency in the language, students must get teacher references, have an interview and write an essay about travel. There are exchange opportunities with students in France, Germany, Spain and Japan. In addition to the French exchange in 2011-12, SBHS will send students to Japan in May. In alternate years, students exchange with others from Germany and Spain.

While in each others’ countries, students are challenged to speak and understand the language. Living with a host family expands their social skills. On the TIE trips, exchange students make poster presentations in each others’ communities. These presentations are prepared well in advance. Students from SBHS created posters, each featuring a successful Vermont business. Included were Ben & Jerry’s, Simon Pearce, King Arthur Flour and Burton Snowboards. These posters were displayed by the students in their hosts’ town and students were available to answer questions by local residents. Similarly, when students from Perigueux were in South Burlington last fall, their poster presentation was held in University Mall.

South Burlington students were expected to keep a journal in French during their trip and to make up for any work they missed over the four days of school that overlapped with the trip. This was, perhaps, not a high price to pay for several weeks in beautiful French countryside filled with ancient small towns and castles. For some of the students, it was their first time traveling abroad.

While in southwestern France with their host families, the group visited La Roque St. Christofe with its prehistoric cliff dwellings, Chateau Beau-Séjour Bécot with its vineyard and underground wine cellar complete with ancient skulls, and medieval towns such as La Roque Gagec with its stoned-roofed houses.

“Our kids did a great job speaking French,” said Jackie Stevenson. “A lot of the tours were in French. Everybody’s experience was a little bit different because we all stayed with families... and because of this, the trip was a lot more educational.”

By the time the group was ready to return to the US, said Stevenson, friendships with their French counterparts had become close and “a lot of tears were shed.” Yet, she noted, it’s easier these days for people to keep in touch through Facebook and e-mail. As Chatham Wilking reflected, “These could be lifelong friendships. I hope so. The trip was a lot of fun.”

SOURCE: Lois Price, Correspondent