Growing up global

By Maria Libby | Dec 10, 2015

As a child of 10, my favorite ride at Disney World was, “It’s a Small World.” That was four decades ago, and the world has become a lot smaller since then.

The first 15 years of this millennium have ushered in an increasingly global world that could hardly be imagined then. It is easier than ever to communicate with people across the globe, resulting in more global business, global friendships and global social movements. There are international teams working on projects together on issues as diverse as elementary language learning and global political crises. Geographic boundaries are being dismantled in most aspects of our lives, and barring some major global catastrophe, most people assume this trend will continue. The world truly is getting smaller.

There is little doubt that most young people will enter a work environment that includes an international connection at some level, from working in the lobster industry trying to tap Asian markets to working in medicine traveling with Doctors Without Borders. Because of this, it is important for students to gain an appreciation for and an understanding of other cultures.

We recognize this in our school districts and have taken major steps to help students gain firsthand experience with other cultures. One of the great legacies of Camden Hills Regional High School’s current principal, Nick Ithomitis, will be the thriving International Program there. We have also nurtured an exchange with Hirakawa City in Japan at the Camden-Rockport Middle School for the past 18 years. Opportunities for cultural travel have a solid footing in our district.

Our International Program at the high school may be one of the most comprehensive programs at any public school in the nation. Not only do we accept international students, on both F1 and J1 visas, but upward of 50 international students visit our high school each year through short-term exchange programs. In turn, nearly 50 CHRHS students then have the opportunity to travel abroad each year as part of the exchange as well.

The exchanges are organized by our high school and include home stays, cultural exploration and school visits. Principal Ithomitis has also developed numerous semester exchanges. In fact, we currently have three students from Italy attending our school. Three of our students will study in Italy next semester, staying with the Italian student who is currently staying at his/her home. Close to 200 CHRHS students have traveled abroad through these programs in the past few years. Every student, regardless of family income, has the opportunity to participate, as the tuition raised through F1 students enables us to provide full and partial scholarships for students with financial need.

I have been fortunate enough to chaperone three overseas trips in my tenure as an administrator in our school system. I have been to Japan twice and went to the Netherlands/Finland last year. I have seen the profound impact these experiences have on students. I have also witnessed the positive impact of hosting foreign students in our schools and community. Students are amazed to learn how similar teenagers around the world actually are.

In reality, it is almost impossible to visually differentiate between them – they dress in a similar fashion, they listen to much of the same music, and they watch the same movies and TV shows. They also realize, perhaps for the first time in their lives, that every society doesn’t work exactly like ours.

In Japan, for instance, schools are incredibly orderly and fish is a common breakfast food. In Finland, some 16 year-olds have their own apartments. In the Netherlands, bicycles are the main mode of transport. They learn that there are different ways to approach life. It gives students a deeper way of looking at the world and their own lives, one that cannot be gained in any other way. This understanding, both of others and of themselves, will prepare them to work more effectively with colleagues from around the world.

These varied international programs, including short-term exchanges, semester exchanges, cultural trips, Chinese summer camps and accepting F1 and J1 international students have quickly become an important part of the high school’s tapestry and identity. They represent our commitment to preparing students as best we can for the world that awaits them as adults. Because the program has grown to be so comprehensive, it has also grown beyond the capacity of a principal to continue to manage.

The board recently decided to hire a half-time International Program coordinator to oversee all aspects of this program to ensure its continued success. We will use tuition revenue from our F1 students to fund the position so there is no taxpayer cost. We do have many students engaged in fundraising to help defray the cost of participating in these trips, and we are very grateful for the community support in helping our local children grow up as globally competent citizens.

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