This past Monday, I walked into Music Theory to find a French student sitting at our table. Though I had briefly met a few students in previous years, this was the first opportunity I had to hold an extended conversation with one of the annual exchange students. Two hours later, I still knew next to nothing about France or French culture, and yet through this exchange program, I had discovered that we could communicate better in Spanish than English, and we could both get to know somebody who happened to live in another country.
The experience was a brief déjà vu of this past summer, when I spent ten days getting to know forty Japanese high school students, and growing tighter than I would have ever thought possible with my roommate, Riko. Upon arriving at Princeton, the counselors promised that these would be the best ten days of our lives, and after days full of cheers, Halloween costumes, YOLO, s’mores, cowboy hats, tea ceremonies, calligraphy, diplomatic discussions, fancy dresses, Call Me Maybe, and scavenger hunts, I understood why.
The difference is in the people. Any class can teach language, and culture can be learned through a textbook. But what truly makes the difference and bridges nations are the people-to-people connections made through exchange programs like these two. I can’t begin to pretend I know all about the history and politics of Japan (let alone any of the language), but I do know Riko’s favorite food (donuts) and her dreams for the future (fusing Western and traditional architecture in Japan). I know the Japanese versions of eenie-meenie-minie-mo and rock-paper-scissors, and have heard first-hand stories about a grandfather’s friends committing suicide when local crops were shunned due to proximity to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. There is no way I could have forged such deep connections, found a new sister eleven time zones away, and changed my entire global perspective without this open sharing on a personal level, and I can say with confidence that the High School Diplomats program was the best ten days of my life. Exchange programs are more than another something to do; they connect people and nations, and they can truly change minds.
High School Diplomats this summer will be held from July 30 – August 10, with scholarships covering all costs, and applications available at www.highschooldiplomats.com. For more information on the French student exchange, contact Madame Delfosse or current students in the program.