Being open to new cultures and learning to coexist in peace
September 03, 2021 10:28

EXCHANGE PROGRAMS: what is in it for the schools and students?
An interview with Carlos Echegaray, director of the Aconcagua Secondary school in Mendoza, Argentina.

Youth for Understanding turned 70 years in 2021. Seventy years of providing exchange program opportunities to high school students around the world. These programs involve studying abroad at schools that open their doors to this experience. We would like to acknowledge all the schools participating in our programs. To know more about the significant learnings for school communities, we interviewed Carlos Echegaray, director of the Aconcagua Secondary school in Mendoza, Argentina.

Carlos has been an English teacher for 20 years and is the headmaster of the school since 2017. He got to know YFU through the area representative in Mendoza, who went to his school to introduce the organization and to propose a Coloured Glasses Workshop for the students.  That was in 2017 and since then, the school and YFU have been collaborating successfully. The school has received exchange students, has provided host families and has hosted several Coloured Glasses Workshops.

YFU: Carlos, how do you think these exchange programs help your school or the learning process of the students?

Carlos: It is very important for our school. Since then it’s been a change. When we started receiving exchange students, we realized that our students were expecting this to happen. It was an enriching experience in every way. For the exchange student that came to that class and for the students from our school, too.

There is an educator called Delors. He established four pillars of education some years ago. He said that XXI Century education should be characterized by four pillars: Learning to do, learning to know, learning to be and the last one: learning to live together.

I think that the last pillar is essential: to learn to coexist in peace. That is what this program brings to our school. Being open to new cultures and understanding that there are other ways of seeing the world.  Students have first-hand experiences in this regard. Those are some of the benefits that this program brings to our school.

As an English teacher and as a father I’m waiting for my kids to turn 15 or 16 to travel with YFU. When you travel abroad, you come back are more autonomous. Because you have to be there on your own, with the support of the host family and YFU, the organization, but you are away from your family.

I’m also passionate about culture. Learning is a life-long process. From the moment we are born until the moment we pass away, we keep on learning. Traveling abroad and knowing about other cultures is a golden opportunity. You come back as a different person.

YFU: Those are certainly the goals of YFU, too. To help the world being better by understanding each other, living in peace. We are very thankful to schools like yours that open their doors to our programs. Does this mean extra effort for the school, for the teachers, for the director? 

Carlos: Not really. It doesn’t involve that much of an effort. It is very important, it is key, to let teachers know that we are going to receive a new student, characteristics, language. So teachers do not see the experience as something threatening to them, but something natural.

If the director of the school is confident about the experience being successful, then you convey that feeling to the rest of the teachers and they feel encouraged to embrace this activity. I am convinced that passion inspires our staff. I did not find any trouble.

Teachers do not find it difficult. They adjust. They accompany the student. In the end, the student ends up picking up the language and dealing with school perfectly, with no problem. So, no extra effort.

As regards students, it is important to prepare them, too.  Let them know that something new is going to happen, that we are going to receive someone, from which place that person is coming from, etc. 

Even when there is this language barrier (Talking about teachers and the new student), there is a universal language that exceeds words. We have received students from Sweden and the United States. They spoke some words of Spanish.  The universal language is the motivation to get closer to another person. That exceeds words.

YFU: What has been the feedback from the teachers about the impact of these programs?

Carlos: The classes were enriched by the presence of the new student. The students were curious about the way of living of adolescents in other parts of the world.

YFU: We have also conducted several Coloured Glasses workshops at your school. These workshops are about respecting each other, realizing prejudices and stereotypes, etc. How do you think it contributed to the classes we were working with? Did you see any reactions, any changes, after the seminars?

Carlos: Definitely, I will tell you an anecdote. Two years ago, we welcomed a YFU intern from Turkey. She was dynamic, inspiring and she was in charge of conducting the Coloured Glasses workshop. I remember that one of our classes was finding problems in adjusting as a group at the beginning of the year. There were some coexistence problems there. It was a class from the second year and it was in April. Classes had started in March. 

After YFU conducted the workshop, the class changed for the better. Those little conflicts disappeared the following week. Students learnt to look at each other from a different way and understanding that this coexistence within the class was essential for the learning process and for having a good time at a school. It is the difference between undergoing some hours at school and enjoying that time with your class.

YFU: That is the marvelous thing about those seminars. By playing, students reflect and they change, sometimes without noticing it. It is a wonderful tool. We are very happy to provide these seminars to schools.  Related to that, your school is having in-person classes at the facilities and virtual classes. How do you imagine it can be an exchange program with virtual classes? 

Carlos: I think it is possible. Definitely. I can tell you from the point of view of my school. This pandemic situation has brought something new to schools. Every director has now more autonomy to make decisions. That is something positive.

During this pandemic, we have been having classes one week at school and one week virtually. So to divide the students into 2 groups and have enough space to keep the necessary distance and cares when students are at school.

If we receive a student, he would be coming to school with the class and the following week would be having classes virtually. If the student is with a host family, the family will assist the student. They will work as a team, they will help each other. 

YFU: We are convinced that we do need these exchanges and to find a way in uncertain times. 

Carlos Echegaray:  I would like to leave a message for teachers, school directors and students. Do not be afraid of taking international exchange programs in your school. As I mentioned at the beginning it provides the fourth pilar of future education: Learning to live together. Exchange foster those values that allow us to live together: respect, understanding for diversity, equality.

I’m encouraging you to take these programs. In my experience, there was a constant accompaniment from Youth for Understanding. Do it!