Last fall, the Black Gold School Division took another step in helping students build bridges across cultures and creating new friendships with an International Student Program pilot.
“We recognize that our student and staff population is becoming more and more diverse, and we want to share the benefits of this vibrant multicultural experience with our rural schools,” said Superintendent of Schools Bill Romanchuk. “Understanding that our rural students do not have a lot of opportunity to interact with students from other backgrounds, we looked for ways to change this, and thus an idea was born.”
By a happy coincidence, the Division was approached by a recruiter who mentioned that many students from other countries were looking for a rural placement. “We then put out feelers to our colleagues and the Palliser School Division approached us, indicating they had more students applying for homestays than they were able to accommodate,” said Curriculum Manager Terri Reid, who oversaw the pilot program.
“They asked if we would like to host some students from Colombia,” said Reid. “We thought it would be a great opportunity for us to see if an International Student Program would be sustainable, something that would benefit Black Gold and our school communities.”
After extensive talks with the Palliser team, Black Gold signed on with enthusiasm, and in mid-November brought seven students from Columbia, along with a teacher chaperone, to three rural schools in Calmar, Thorsby, and New Sarepta. The visitors stayed with local host families and experienced different aspects of the region’s life and culture.
“We really wanted to provide our rural students with greater exposure to diversity with this cultural experience, with opportunities to meet peers that they would otherwise not encounter and to learn from those experiences,” said Yolanda Chang, eLearning and Dual Credit Lead teacher who organized the pilot. “We also wanted to give the visiting students exposure to life in the Alberta prairies; what it’s like to live here in the winter months, and to provide them with enriching cultural experiences.”
When staff started recruiting host families to potentially host the students, they found there was a lot of interest in the project. The interested families wanted their children to have these kinds of intercultural experiences, and were excited and motivated to learn more about people from different places.
The International Student Program pilot went very well, and the Division received a lot of positive feedback from the school communities – principals, teachers, students, and the host families.
“Everyone had a lot of positive things to say about it,” said Chang. “The students, even though they were here for a short time – only four weeks – really bonded with their families, and in turn the host families went above and beyond to give them such wonderful experiences and showed off the best of their communities and Alberta.”
The Colombian students were excited to try new things and experiences, like playing in the snow, taking in a hockey game, trying poutine, watching the winter lights at Luminaria festival, horseback riding, and getting an introduction to curling in Calmar.
“The Calmar Curling Club and the Town of Calmar put together a curling extravaganza to host the Columbian students staying in Calmar and Thorsby,” said Chang. “The students were blown away by the generosity and the community spirit shown to them, and the curling lessons were a real hit!”
The international students also loved going to class, and their teachers and classmates loved having them. The hometown kids quickly formed friendships with the visitors, helping them around their schools and communities and building lasting relationships. They quickly overcame the language barrier through the use of smartphone apps like Google Translate and the universal language of friendship.
Colette Benbow, a host parent in Thorsby, had a great experience and felt that Samuel, her visiting student, helped her family gain a new appreciation for living in Alberta.
“I can say that some of the positive impacts that we saw was just our kids having to be more helpful and put themselves out there a little to, you know, to help Samuel navigate the bus and get to school and making sure he knew where to go,” said Colette. “Just watching somebody else experience the cold weather reminded us that it’s not all doom and gloom in winter here, and we can all do some fun activities. Samuel made a snowman the day he arrived, and had a really fun time at the hockey game.”
Dan Lake, principal of Calmar Secondary School, had a more philosophical outlook on opening his school and community to visitors from Columbia. “We’ve gone through a lot of divisiveness in the last few years, and I really felt like these kids coming reminded us how great our country really is,” he said. “When I think of our three international kids, none of them wanted to leave. They loved it here. They loved everything. They loved the families, and they loved our school, which I believe is contagious.”
“When the time came to say goodbye there was much crying and promises to keep in touch, and I am happy to report that a lot of them still stay in contact,” said Chang. “A lot of our host parents were saying: “Oh, I wish we had more weekends. There were still more things we wanted to do with them we didn’t get a chance to do.”
After the International Student Program pilot concluded, the Division gathered feedback from the parents and school principals on how the program might move forward. “From what we have heard, it seems like there’s a lot of interest to continue,” said Reid. “Many of the host families would be open to hosting again as they had such a great experience.”
She would like to see the program expand, which would involve the Division becoming full members of the Canadian Association of Public Schools – International, along with creating awareness of international education opportunities and exploring the possibility of reciprocal exchanges.