Once upon a time, Ingrid and I were foreign language teachers on opposite sides of the Atlantic; over the years we have become the kind of friends who can talk on the phone, still across the ocean, for hours – or until one of us has to hustle to the bathroom!
Such was a recent conversation as we caught up on family news, health concerns, and world politics. Then we reminded ourselves of how young we were that day 42 years ago, when a group of nervous GHS students and their equally-nervous teacher stepped off a bus in front of OHG, our German partner school.
From the beginning, Ingrid and I shared similar visions of international travel, study, and exchange for our students. During our 26-year partnership, however, it all became so much more than we could ever have imagined.
At the same time, another exchange program was taking shape in the Graham district under the leadership of Marcia Ward and several Graham teachers, who organized the International School-to-School Exchange for older elementary students. For thirty years, Graham schools and families sent and received delegations from various corners of the world – including Mexico, Canada, India, Sweden, and England.
Along the way, a handful of Falcons won scholarships for year-long stays in Germany through the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange. And one Graham student even won a month-long study trip based on his National German Exam score.
Although the busy years of international exchange have slipped into the proverbial history books, vestiges of that time and those experiences ripple across the world even today. A former GHS student and her family, now living in the Mechanicsburg area, recently bid farewell to their German exchange student after her 10-month stay in Champaign County.
Another former student, now a vocational school instructor, described to me how a student exchange program – focused on apprenticeship education – developed between Piqua’s Upper Valley Career Center and a vocational high school in Hannover, just up the road from our former partner school.
Heartwarming, too, are the stories of Graham and Otto-Hahn students, now with families and careers of their own, who have remained in contact all these years. There are also lapsed relationships being rekindled on the virtual pages of social media.
Most exchanges share the commonality of travel, opportunities to visit historically-significant sites as well as locally-popular ones. GHS and OHG kids saw the Lincoln Memorial and the Berlin Wall, enjoyed Kiser Lake and Steinhuder Meer, toured Marie’s Candies in West Liberty and Hannover’s Bahlsen cookie factory.
Another benefit of student exchange is education. The mere act of immersion in the life and language of another country teaches lessons impossible to duplicate in classrooms at home. Our school-to-school exchanges also provided opportunities to observe first-hand how other educational systems work.
Eventually, however, I came to realize that the most important part of our exchanges was the homestay. Travel photos fade, and we all eventually finish school. But for our entire lives we interact with others. Our programs allowed kids – at an early age – to learn that all people everywhere share certain basics of life.
Internationally, administrations and regimes come and go, legislative majorities shift, summits and pacts and alliances continue – until the next summit or pact or alliance. But the real constant in any nation is the people who inhabit it. Regardless of trumpeted policies enacted or nullified in any country, despite any government’s edicts or proclamations, it is the just-plain-folks moving through the natural stages of life that form the bedrock strength of their homelands. Ease of transportation, distant images beamed right into our homes, social media connections across the miles allow us all to compare our similarities and examine our differences.
Although it may be difficult to participate in formal exchange, we can find ways to interact with fellow world citizens in order to strengthen our connections in the face of global tensions arising among nations and their leaders.
Years ago, educator friends of mine for a couple of weeks each summer hosted a teacher from another country. Almost every college has international students who present a perfect possibility for sharing a holiday meal or visiting a local event.
A simple, tried-and-true means of connecting is one of the most enduring. For ten years now, I have been translating short notes and long letters between an American woman and her German counterpart. These faithful pen pals have corresponded for years – through marriages and loss of spouse, health concerns and family activities, through the nitty gritty of life. I have never met these ladies, but through the pages of their letters I share a bit in their lovely friendship.
And my own friendship with Ingrid? After all, our fathers served as soldiers in opposing armies in the 1940’s. The politics of four German chancellors and eight American presidents has done nothing to diminish our relationship, once based on our teaching years and now our retirements. We know and love each other’s families and have grieved the loss of our parents. Regardless of our passports and despite occasionally agreeing to disagree, our friendship has endured.
In 1976, after our first year of exchange, a German host mother wrote to her son’s GHS family: “I always thought of America as a huge and foreign place very far away. Now when I think of America, I think of you.” That, my friends, is exactly what the world needs now.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.