‘The experience of travel with a group of peers and with the support of an enthusiastic, supportive teacher, helps a person develop a sense of agency and competence’

Camden Hills intercultural program thriving with immersion opportunity expansion

Thu, 09/19/2019 - 2:15pm

    ROCKPORT — The intercultural program at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport is thriving as the district continues to provide more opportunities to students wishing to immerse themselves in short-term and long-term intercultural trips around the world. 

    While some trips take place in the United States, the majority includes travel to countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Caribbean. 

    As part of the district’s mission to provide access to these trips to as many students as possible, regardless of their ability to pay, the program is holding a family-friendly, all-ages community dance this month in the school cafeteria with a potluck dinner and music being provided by “The Right Track,” a 12-piece funk, soul and R&B band. (See sidebar for more information.) 

    The event’s proceeds will support immersion opportunities for this school year with exchange programs lined up with schools from Germany, France, Morocco and Australia. Additionally, students from Camden Hills will participate in a service learning immersion with Native American communities in Colorado and a cultural trip to London focused on theater and arts. 

    The event coincides with the visit of 16 German exchange students to Rockport, which is another aspect of the program. 

    In addition to sending area students on trips across the world, the program also provides area students with the opportunity to learn about other cultures by hosting foreign students for short-term and long-term trips. 

    From Rockport to Worldwide

    The process for selecting where the Rockport-based high school will travel each year is a complex and multi-layered process, according to F-1 Intercultural Coordinator Tom Gray, who also splits his time as the high school’s gifted and talented program coordinator and a social studies teacher. 

    For starters, the school administration and district school board have worked the last few years to create what Gray has described to be a meaningful, practical balance of offerings with a goal of offering opportunities in as broad of a cultural range as possible. 

    To reach this goal, the intercultural staff was developed strategic relationships with partner schools, relationships that tend to develop organically and often from a personal connection stemming from a relationship with a staff member.

    As such, the program aims to offer two or three short term exchanges, a service learning trip and a cultural trip each year. 

    One of the school’s teachers, for instance, traveled to France in 2016 visit family and made a connection with a French school, which cultivated into a fruitful exchange partnership, Gray recalled. 

    Gray, himself, traveled in 2012 to Morocco as part of the State Department’s Teachers for Global Classrooms program and made a long-term connection with the school he was placed at, which is resulting in an exchange opportunity in the upcoming spring. 

    Other relationships developed as a result of cold-calling — or rather, cold-emailing. 

    The long-standing exchange relationship with Gregor Mendel Gymnasium of Germany originated in 2012 when the German school’s students emailed over 400 schools in English-speaking countries with Camden Hills being the lone school to respond. 

    Camden Hills recently established a relationship with the regional educational authority in Queensland, Australia courtesy the efforts of Camden Hills science teachers Margo Murphy and Sarah Mismash, who emailed several schools and educational agencies in Australia. 

    The Australian connection is resulting in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, expedition taking place in summer 2020. 

    Locations are selected based on student interest, expertise of staff members leading the trips and timing that will work for the exchange partner schools. Safety is, of course, the school’s top priority when considering areas to visit. 

    Each trip includes an average of 15-20 students, though a group of 27 immersed themselves in France last school year.  

    This academic year, the school has more than 80 students enrolled in its intercultural offerings with spaces remaining for its upcoming London trip, which was added just prior to summer vacation since the other already planned trips had reached capacity and students were being turned away. 

    “Last year, one of our art teachers, Russell Kahn, leveraged a personal connection with Deer Hill Expeditions in southwest Colorado to put together a highly successful service learning expedition to the Navajo and Hopi reservations in that area,” said Gray.

    With a plethora of European partners, the program is undergoing efforts to expand beyond Europe, and even turning to opportunities within the United States. 

    Gray cited the prospect of other trips within the United States on the horizon as a reason why the school elects to call the program an intercultural program, rather than an international program. 

    Costs for each trip vary with short-term exchanges (typically two weeks) hovering around $2,500 and cultural excursions (requiring hotels and a tour company for about nine days) around $4,000. 

    “We cover as much of the costs for all participants as we can through fundraising, and individual students facing financial hardship are often awarded substantial financial support,” Gray said. 

    In fact, Gray noted the district takes steps each year to broaden its financial support for students taking part in intercultural trips as the districts wants all students to have access to the trips, regardless of ability to pay.

    The district strongly favors the intercultural program as a way of committing to, and supporting, the idea of global competence, which Gray defined as the capacity of a person to understand how to collaborate and form relationships with people from other cultures. 

    This past July, Camden Hills students traveled to Germany where they spent time with their German counterparts in school and immersing themselves throughout the country with stops in a multitude of cities. 

    Global competence, Gray noted, is vital to each student’s skillset to form successful careers, regardless of if the student remains in Maine. 

    “The experience of travel with a group of peers and with the support of an enthusiastic, supportive teacher, helps a person develop a sense of agency and competence,” he said. “Navigating the journey is even more important that the specific destination of the trip — planning and budgeting for the experience, managing one’s things, meeting new people, learning how to communicate across language barriers, integrating into another family and school — all of these things change the lives of both the students and their families. There really is no substitute.” 

    The trips, as such, are nowhere near vacations and the program is not fundamentally about travel. 

    Rather, the trips are about learning and are highly personal cultural immersions exposing students to unique experiences, providing them means to cultivate relationships they will remember for the remainder of life. 

    Power of Cultural Exchanges

    In addition to the Rockport-based high school sending its students around the world on intercultural experiences, Camden Hills is pleased to host international students each year through short-term and long-term exchange programs, the latter lasting either a full academic year or only a semester. 

    Some of the foreign students, who can be placed with host families, travel to the Midcoast with a special F-1 visa enabling them to earn academic credit from Camden Hills. 

    The school has hosted students from Germany, France, Spain and Scotland, among other countries. 

    In fact, the school is presently hosting students from Gregor Mendal Gymnasium in Germany in Rockport for an exchange program lasting until Oct. 2. (In July, a group of Camden Hills students traveled to Germany as part of the exchange.) 

    After arriving in the late evening hours Sept. 16, the German students alternate between spending time with their American counterparts at school and experiencing the wonders of Maine and New England. 

    Adventures for the German students will include a ferry trip to Monhegan Island, a day at the Common Ground Fair, a day trip by train to Boston and a biking experience at Acadia and Bar Harbor. 

    The trip for the German students will conclude with a farewell lobster bake the night before they leave for the trip back to Europe. 

    Right before they board the bus to Boston, the German students will participate in the tradition of planting flower bulbs in the high school’s memory garden. 

    The entire experience of cultural exchanges, especially the hosting aspect, can be described as powerful, as Camden Hills student Chloe Cognard did for her student newspaper story on being a host family to an exchange student from France. 

    In the piece, Cognard brings readers through the journey from the beginning as she describes the paperwork completed by her and her sister (“because God knows my mom is not gifted with paperwork,” she wrote). 

    After relaying background information on the program, Cognard detailed how her experience of the program left a profound impact upon her life and, just as importantly, upon the lives of those trekking to the United States. 

    At the end of the day, as Gray said, the trips are not simply a vacation. Rather, the trips are meant to instill students, no matter their background, with valuable life skills. 

    Reach George Harvey at: sports@penbaypilot.com