Exchanging “Bonjours” for “Hellos”

February 25, 2016

Every February is typically the same for the students at FHC; the longing for the dog days of summer sets in while students are well into second semester, expecting another foot of snow. The days are all dreary and gray, seemingly blending together into one long and never-ending school week. However, during the first two weeks of February there is a subtle shift in this dynamic. A few classes may seem just a little bit more full and the hallways a little more crowded. A student may notice that the absence of “hello’s” and the presence of “bonjour’s.” This year, this subtle change has come at the end of February extending into the beginning of March: the exchange students from Strasbourg, France have arrived.

For the past 19 years, there has been a partnership between the three Forest Hills schools and a small high school in Strasbourg France. As FHC French teacher Laurie VanHouten says, she “sees no reason for it not to continue so long as Forest Hills has a French program.” Every year, the students in France have the opportunity to visit the United States, specifically Grand Rapids, for two weeks. They are hosted by any student in the Forest Hills district, not necessarily a student in the French program. During the winter, both the American and French students complete a personality profile in order to best match the students. They are provided with contact information and are able to communicate with each other prior to the arrival. Freshman Katie Frazier is a first-year French student at FHC and will be hosting a French exchange student this year.

I am not nervous, I am very excited!” said Frazier. “I have been in contact with Alice and already know a lot about her.”

The program is spearheaded by the Forest Hills Northern teacher, Amy Hineline, who designs an itinerary for the students and their two teachers. Activities include day trips to Lake Michigan, the Grand Rapids Courthouse, Grand Valley State University, and many other destinations unique to West Michigan. There are a handful of days in which the French students are expected to shadow their American correspondent in his or her daily life. Frazier remarked how she will be taking her exchange student to basketball games, ice skating, even to FHN’s Swirl dance in addition to the days spent at school together.

The exchange students from Strasbourg are expected to speak English while on their visit to Forest Hills, but the FHC French students are also encouraged to speak French to them while they are here. A highlight of the trip for Forest Hills French students is “picture day.” This is the day where the Strasbourg students sit in every French class and discuss their lives home in Strasbourg, complete with developed pictures. VanHouten believes the relationship is a one that benefits both types of students.

“I think it gives both groups a better understanding of people from another culture and shows them real world uses for what they are learning in school,” said VanHouten. “I also think that it’s great for both groups to learn about cities other than Paris and New York.”

Senior Ellie Siebert hosted a Strasbourg student two years ago in 2014 and has still remained in contact with her. VanHouten has noted that “there have been some great friendships and visits that have formed over the years,” and Siebert’s exchange yielded no exception.

“I was also fortunate enough to visit my correspondent this summer and stay with her family for three weeks, which is one of the best experiences anyone can have,” said Siebert. “Being fully immersed in a culture the way I was is something everyone should experience. It helped me see what other kids our age live like.”

Although Siebert traveled to visit her correspondent and friend during the summer, the “exchange” portion of the Strasbourg exchange occurs every two years: Hineline organizes a trip to France that includes a few days in Paris and a week in Strasbourg over spring break. This time, the American students are the ones expected to speak French and shadow their French correspondent. The next trip to Strasbourg will be available to French students next year, over spring break in 2017.

However, with the arrival of the Strasbourg exchange students tonight, expect the halls for the next two weeks to be just a little more crowded, some classes just a little more full with the influx of nine French students. A student does not have to be a French student to see what great friends can be made. While they may seemingly another world away, “it is nice to see they aren’t so different from us,” said Siebert. “[it also] breaks the stereotypes of them being mean, smelly French people.”

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