Exchange in Scenery

by Eva Falkenstein, Features Reporter, and Emma Zhang, Features Editor

Seventeen Argentine students from the Colegio del Carmen School in San Rafael, Argentina arrived in Newton on Nov. 5th for a two-week exchange to improve their English, learn about the United States and make lifelong friends. 

Their arrival marked the first year of the Argentina Spanish Language Exchange program, which had been set to begin in 2019 but was postponed for three years due to COVID-19. 

World language department head Suzanne Murphy-Ferguson said that the program had been highly anticipated. 

“It was initially just a contact with administrators and teachers. We began in the years prior to the pandemic with some remote connections. After three years of that, we were all set for an exchange,” she said. “We had increasingly escalating ways of getting students in contact with one another, and it finally came to fruition.”

In addition to encouraging student participation in the program, Spanish teacher Cynthia Manthei helped plan the exchange by meeting with Colegio del Carmen administrators to coordinate logistics. Manthei said that the students and faculty from both schools expressed immediate interest in the exchange. 

“At Newton South, we have had many service trips in the [world] language department under the Spanish program, but we haven’t really had any exchanges in my memory,” she said. “They have them in the French program, and they have them at Newton North, so everybody was interested on both sides.”

Senior Anna Zeren hosted an Argentine student and said that the exchange program gave her the opportunity to improve her knowledge on Argentine culture and language. 

“I love Spanish and I really wanted to improve my Spanish, so that was one factor. I also wanted to do this [visiting] program freshman year, but then it got canceled because of COVID-19,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming and I am really excited to get to know Argentine culture.” 

Exchange student and rising senior Lauti Avila said that she decided to take advantage of the program to experience a new way of living and move outside of her comfort zone.  

“I wanted to see another culture and different things from what I did every day in my house, and I liked that we had the opportunity to get closer to other people,” she said.

As part of the program, hosts spent as much time with their visiting students as possible to show them the different aspects of American life. Zeren said that she enjoyed sharing her hobbies and interests with her exchange student.

“I do gymnastics, so I showed them the gymnastics gym. I also am part of the Children of the Candy Corn improv group so they came to practice for that, and it was fun to show them my after-school activities,” she said.

Exchange students also visited famous locations in Massachusetts through group activities and trips Manthei helped to organize. During the weekends, she said the students visited Boston, Cape Cod as well as several historical sites. 

“The students toured MIT, Harvard, BU and parts of the Freedom Trail. They went to the play last Friday night, which was really fun. We had a potluck and a marshmallow night. We did a lot of fun activities together, plus they came to classes,” she said.

While the students enjoyed exploring the region, they understandably encountered many cultural shocks. Confronting these curiosities and preconceived perceptions is the basis for growth, Murphy-Ferguson said.

“It is so easy to have stereotypes about different people, and when you actually live through the culture of another person, you begin to understand more in the commonalities than in the beginning,” she said. “You need to walk through the rhythm of somebody else’s life and to see the things that are surprising.”

Argentine senior Sofia Lavastrou said her biggest surprise was the difference in school structure.

 “In America, you have to move classrooms, but in Argentina, we stay in the same classrooms, and the teachers are the ones that are moving. We start school at 7:30 a.m. and we finish at 1:30 p.m.,” she said.

Junior and host Lexi Cooke said she gained a new cultural perspective from the Argentine students. 

“Their customs and their interactions seemed different at first, but that [didn’t] stop them from becoming really good friends with us,” she said. “Since they’re different, we can actually learn a lot more from them. All of us ended up having a lot of fun sharing what was different about being in Argentina and what they did differently.”

Murphy Ferguson said that despite the language barriers, navigating a new place is a rewarding experience.

“I watched these kids return much more self-confident,” she said. “When you live somewhere where you don’t speak the language, you’re in a position where you have to [adapt] in order to get by and navigate the situation.”

Until April when South students are set to travel to Argentina, Cooke said that she will stay in touch with her exchange student to continue fostering their cross-cultural connections. 

“We were very close while she was living here, and once she left it’s harder to keep that connection, but I still definitely see us being really good friends in the future,” she said. “I’m glad that we’ve been keeping contact because that makes it so we actually gain something from it and have [global] connections.”

To many, the prospect of spending two weeks away from home in a country with a drastically different culture may be overwhelming, and Manthei said that she has seen incredible growth in student participants. 

“One of the biggest moments was when a student turned to me and said, ‘I didn’t think I would ever want to go to Argentina. I didn’t want to do this. My parents forced me. They pushed me, but now I can’t believe how much I got out of this, and I am really excited to go to Argentina.’ That’s what it is all about,” she said.

Murphy-Ferguson said that exposure to different cultures is an important part of being a global citizen, a value the world language department continues to emphasize. 

 “We provide opportunities for students to experience life outside of South and outside of our American culture not only to learn more about others, but also because you gain perspective when you can look back on yourself and your own culture,” she said. “It gives us the opportunity for much greater cultural understanding and access to the world.”

photos contributed by Anna Zeren