AHS students reflect on exchange trip

Seven days in France called ‘best educational experience’

By Stephanie Prokop, Staff Writer
   ALLENTOWN — When students at Allentown High School think back to their recent study trip abroad, it won’t be the baguettes, the Louvre, or the Eiffel Tower that they will miss the most.
   Instead, the students said they really miss the company of their French foreign exchange peers and the host families they stayed with.
   ”I really think that it was so far the best week of my life,” said junior Samantha Hantzepetros.
   The exchange program is now in its 20th year of integrating Allentown students into a school in Grande-Synthe, a town in Dunkirk, about four hours north of Paris, according to French teacher and trip supervisor Barbara Lehman.
   The students left from Newark on Feb. 23 and returned from France on March 1.
   The program started in 1988, when Felipe Bourdon, a student from Grande-Synthe, traveled to America to stay with a family in Allentown. The student’s father, principal of the Lycee du Noordover, wanted to establish an exchange program with AHS.
   The AHS students attended a welcome ceremony, got to see the sights of Paris and part of Belgium, and spent the rest of their seven-day trip attending classes at the Lycee du Noordover.
   Even though the students attended only a few days of classes at their exchange school, the cultural differences were perceivable — but not impossible to adjust to, according to Caitlin Van Horn.
   ”The classes are structured with a lot of lecturing, and I really felt as though I was in college,” Caitlin said.
   Amongst the typical high school subjects of math and reading, the students from Allentown attended a “cinema” class, which was a favorite of both American and French students alike, she said.
   Another curriculum difference was a class titled “social,” which was divided into two open-discussion forum parts — one of which let the students focus on current political events, one which had students express how these current events were relevant in their personal lives.
   Caitlin said the class seemed to prep students much more for more active involvement in their government, and agreed that students in the States seem to be really insulated on these issues. She noted that it seemed as though the French students could verbalize themselves really well, which isn’t always the case over here.
   Although the majority of the classes were conducted in French, the students did field some comical questions when they were asked to interact in English class.
   ”I was asked if I knew Chuck Norris, and if I knew the ending to the television program ‘Lost,’” said junior Kaitlin Shamlian.
   Strict conservation was something that the AHS students received a crash course in — especially when they learned that they had to bring their own toilet paper to school.
   Lunches consisted of potatoes, served with some kind of meat, sometimes pork or beef, although the students did get to sample shark and potatoes during their stay.
   Although most of the AHS students agreed that the French students knew much more about American culture than Americans knew about French pop culture, they all agreed that their musical knowledge matched up.
   Kaitlin added that a lot of her French peers would ask about New York and couldn’t wait to travel the United States and go to the city.
   The trip was opened up to all students in the school who study French, and most of the students who attended have been studying the language for more than three years.
   ”It was really a total meld,” said Ms. Lehman of the transition, “A lot of students have been telling us that it was by far the best educational experience that they’ve had so far.”
   When AHS students weren’t attending classes, they had activities planned with their host families and their French peers.
   Recreational activities such as bowling, ice skating and picture-taking dominated much of their allotted free time.
   The students also got to see Paris, and spent a day taking in the iconic scenery that surrounds the city.
   Still, the students said that the most gratifying thing was to be able to interact with their host families and peers.
   ”You can go and see the beauty, (of the city of Paris) but ultimately, it’s the friendships that you’ve formed while there that stand out to you,” Samantha said.
   Most of the students agreed that leaving their new-found friends was the hardest part.
   ”On the day we left, there was a massive rainstorm, and the bus driver actually had to pretend he was leaving in order to get the students to board the bus,” said Ms. Lehman.
   Next March, the French students will be coming to America to immerse themselves in American culture for two weeks while attending classes at AHS.
   While the trip only lasted for five days, the bonds that the students formed with their host families and peers is sure to last, said Ms. Lehman.
   ”We have had students who have been godparents to their French exchange students’ children,” she added.
   ”When I got back into the States, and I was describing my experiences to my parents, I noticed that I was using a lot of hand gestures and pausing often,” said Wayne Heidenan.
   ”It was as though I was searching for the English words to complete my sentence — just like my French exchange peer would have,” he added.
   Soon, the signs of total immersion was beginning to leave their mark on many of the AHS students: They began thinking in French.
   ”At first it was difficult, especially because my exchange student didn’t speak much English, and I was struggling with some French,” Samantha explained. “But then you adapt, and by the end, I was speaking and thinking of my journal entries in French.”