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Could school exchange trips become a thing of the past?

school exchange a thing of past imageArticle by Ceri Wheeldon

I read with dismay about the potential end of school exchange trips – apparently due to the fear of the exchange students being abused while staying at the homes of host families. It appears there is no evidence of any abuse, and language teachers have voiced concerns about the impact on exchange experiences if students now have to stay in hostels, as language skills best improve when students are totally immersed in the culture of the ‘foreign’ family.

I was fortunate to participate in a school exchange programme at the age of 14, when my school in Wales was twinned with a school in Toulouse. I had no idea quite how that experience might influence my life later!

We hosted the French students first. Letters were exchanged between families ahead of time. For 3 weeks Sylvie stayed with my family, attending school with me during the day. Later that year we went and stayed in France with the families of our exchange partners . So, an avid David Cassidy fan (me) and a CloClo fan (her) were immersed in each other’s lives with our respective families. My conversational French improved enormously outside of the classroom environment and I felt incredibly comfortable with the French way of life and developed an ongoing fondness for France. It also took me away from home to have a little independence from my family, yet in a ‘safe’ environment. Both families wanted to ensure that we each had the best possible experience from the exchange.

Fast forward nearly 40 years ( how time flies) and here I am married to a French man (I didn’t meet him on the exchange!) . My husband  had also participated in a school exchange as a teenager , staying with an English family on the south coast. In his case the families involved became firm friends , with trips between the two families arranged outside of the exchange scheme in subsequent summers.

Enormous benefits of school exchange trips

We both benefitted enormously from those exchange trips. In my own working life I was able to put my French to good use, and was fast tracked for promotion as a result. My husband also found that speaking English created more opportunities for him in his early career in France, and enabled him to move to the UK with confidence later.

Yes we had language lessons at school, but in my opinion nothing can replace using those languages in real, every day situations, and I do think it is easier to learn a language when you are younger – although it is never too late!

We all want to protect our children, but in being so risk averse are we denying them experiences which can enhance their lives now and in the future? Do we really want to instil a feeling that all families other than our own could present risks to personal safety?

As the economy becomes increasingly global, shouldn’t we be encouraging more exchanges to promote more understanding not only of language, but also culture? In my own case a French exchange seemed quite adventurous in those days, but just think of the benefits exchanges with students in emerging markets may have today!

Certainly for me my French exchange experience had a very positive impact on my life – I learnt that I could live happily in another country, and adapt quickly to a new environment in addition to improving my French.

Would I have had the confidence to go off to live in Canada ( in Ottawa which has a high percentage of French speakers) in my 20s had I not participated in the exchange programme? I’m not sure, and certainly my French language skills at that time helped get the required number of ‘points’ to be allowed to work there.

Would I have married a French man ? Who knows! But the fact that we both participated in the exchanges certainly increased the likelihood of our paths crossing later. Although we do still have situations where things get lost in translation!

I do hope today’s generation do not have the experience of school exchanges closed to them. What are your thoughts on the benefits of school exchanges?

Image: Freedigitalphotos.net

Ceri Wheeldon

Ceri is Founder and Editor of Fabafterfifty.co.uk She is a frequent speaker at events and in the media on topics related to women over 50 , including style and living agelessly. With 20+ years experience as a headhunter Ceri also now helps support those looking to extend their working lives.

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