Cultural Exchange Comes to Campus

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Did you know we had six French foreign exchange students visit our school?

We had the pleasure of meeting four of these students—Julie, Romin, Selen, and Armand—and interviewing them, as well as one of their shadow hosts and Dr. Lehmil to learn more about the exchange program and their experiences here in Atlanta.

Before visiting Atlanta, Armand had already visited Dallas, Texas, and Julie had visited California, Utah, and Florida. Julie and Romin live in Tours, France, and Selen lives in Orleans; however, they all attend the same school back home.

At their home school, Selen studies Chinese and also speaks Turkish. Romin studies Spanish, and Julie studies Spanish and also speaks German, which is similar to how we learn different languages here in the United States.

As you might guess, all four of them speak English at an advanced level; however, they each started learning English at different times, which they all find very interesting. Romin started learning English six years ago. Selen started learning English seven years ago but started speaking the language in the past year. Julie started learning English five years ago.

As opposed to our approach to foreign language instruction in the United States, the language curriculum of foreign languages is primarily studied through listening and writing, until the student wants to learn to speak a language.

Naturally, the French exchange students’ lives and cultures are quite different than ours in Atlanta; however, some aspects of the different cultures are alike when you put them into perspective.

French teacher Dr. Lehmil recently started a program that allows various French students to experience life in America for a month. Partnered with the principal of Saint Denis International School, Mr. Chatagon and Dr. Lehmil developed the program less than a year ago, making this talented group of students the first to take advantage of the experience.

The program is very selective as these six students were hand-chosen by their teachers and peers. “Their willingness to learn and step out of their comfort zone impressed her and many others,” Dr. Lehmil said. Although they felt awkward at first, they soon adapted to their surroundings, which demonstrates their enthusiasm to learn more about the everyday lives of Americans. 

As the exchange students studied American culture, a few things stuck out to them. One aspect of American society the French students did not like was the food. The larger portions and unhealthier food selection is a typical culture shock to many Europeans.

The disorganized chaos that ensues before breaks and lunches was also different. In French schools, people are more orderly and make less of a mess in the cafeteria because they are in less of a rush.

Another cultural difference was American fashion. Americans are known for more casual, “athleisure” wear the world over; however, many people in France prefer a dressier style, even in casual places.

While Marist students have uniforms, many girls wear leggings underneath their skirts in colder months. Multiple exchange students commented on this, expressing their distaste. They did, however, seem to find the senior backpacks interesting.

Like many high schools across the United States, our parking lots are filled with hundreds of cars. This abundance of automobiles came as a shock to our French visitors. In France, it is typical to take public transportation to school, work, and nearly everywhere else one goes.

While there were many things the French students found unusual, they did enjoy the “mindset” of Americans. They specifically described American teachers as calmer and inclusive. The teachers were kind to them. Even though they could not understand parts of the lesson, the teachers made sure to make them feel comfortable.

The exchange program would be very difficult if not for the participation of Marist students, who serve as “shadow hosts” during the school day. Freshman Ava Grenier, who shadow hosted Armand, said, “The language barrier was difficult . . . but he’s really sweet and easily made friends with many people across the grade.”

During our interview, many questions and answers had to be translated by Dr. Lehmil, which revealed the challenges of the language barrier. Julie, Romin, Selen, and Armand said, the exchange experience “forced them to step out of their comfort zone and, while it was tiring at times, it was a challenge they were willing to face.”

Selen’s shadow host, Kate Postell, noted Selen’s improvement since the beginning of her stay in Atlanta. During English class, Selen even volunteered to read the poem of the day, demonstrating her willingness to step out of her comfort zone.

Throughout this experience, both the students from France and our very own fellow Americans stepped out of their comfort zones to experience news things.