Most high school students wouldn’t opt to spend their summer vacations going to school, but a few teens at Notre Dame de Sion’s high school are doing just that.
For the past month, the school has hosted students from Australia, Brazil and Chile. Right now, it’s summer vacation in those countries. When summer arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, the students they’re living with here will join them in their home countries for about a month.
The institutions in Australia and Brazil are part of a network of 18 schools founded by the Sisters of Sion order of nuns. The nuns no longer run many of the schools, but there is a still a sense of community among the group.
After including Brazil for the first time this year, administrators at the local Sion school are planning to extend the in-network exchange program to a Sion school in Costa Rica next year. The school also participates in exchanges with a Sion school in France and non-network schools in Germany, Chile and other places.
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While the students are here, they live with the girls who will come to their countries in the summer, and the families take care of meals and other day-to-day things. One requirement of the program is that the families take their students on a trip outside of the area.
For students visiting Kansas City, that might mean a weekend in Chicago or New York. Students visiting Melbourne this summer can expect a visit to someplace like Sydney. What matters is that they experience the larger picture of what it’s like to be in their particular country.
“The biggest thing is making sure they’re comfortable — being inclusive and (making sure they’re) getting a taste of what we do,” said Sion student Mary Helen Guastello, who lives in Leawood and is hosting Grace Cairnduff, a student from Melbourne, Australia.
On a trip to Chicago with Mary Helen’s family, Grace got a taste of America that included an NBA game and a deep-dish pizza.
Although the school here in Kansas City is just for girls, some international Sion schools are co-ed. The schools in Brazil sent nine boys as part of their exchange this year. Because they can’t attend Sion, Rockhurst High School is hosting them.
Part of the challenge of the exchange program is that it is a true exchange. Students can only go if there is another student willing to exchange with them, with few exceptions.
Grace said only about half of the students at her school who wanted to come were able to do so.
Aline Zablonsky said the competition to come here was stiff at her school in Curitiba, Brazil. Some of the others who applied “speak English better than me. When I know I go, I think, ‘Oh my gosh,’” said Aline, who’s living with Sion student Cierra Kane in Loch Loyd. “I didn’t believe I was really doing it.”
The students do not have to pay tuition while at Sion, and their corresponding schools will extend that same courtesy to the American students this summer. All students pay for their own travel.
“What we like to try to do is create a balance. We want them to spend time in the school, because we’re trying to build a community of international schools, (but) we want to show them some pieces that are less academic as well,” said Steven Turner, associate head of school for curriculum and instruction at Notre Dame de Sion.
Learning cultural differences is also part of the experience, as Brazilian student Lorena Righi discovered.
Lorena’s host sister, Allison Odermann of Lenexa, described her friend’s experience.
“Boys were coming up to her, and they’re like, ‘Hi, my name is this’ (and offering a handshake), and she didn’t know what to do” Odermann said. “She’s like, ‘What is this?’”
The boys were equally mystified by Lorena’s response.
“I went to do like I do in Brazil. I give a kiss (on both cheeks), and they were looking at me like, ‘What are you doing?’” Lorena said.
For Grace, it’s just getting used to being someone who’s different in the crowd.
“It’s about being able to adapt, she says. “Every time I open my mouth I feel like someone looks at me. In Australia, our voices … sound the same. You get here, and it’s the strangest thing. Everyone wants to hear you speak.”