High School Exchange Programs on Ice

Photo by Evie S. on Unsplash

The seemingly-neverending pandemic has affected many aspects of everyday life as well as long-time special programs of the public school system. One of the programs most affected (though the Owl would say it was already on the rocks) is the high school foreign exchange program.

Since 1961, students from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul High School in Porto Alegre, Brazil have had the opportunity to study in Weston, and on the other side, Weston students have been able to study in Brazil. There was also an exchange program with France, and shorter-term exchanges with Argentina and China sprang up from time to time. At one point, ​​Weston High School was one of only ten high schools nationally designated by the  U.S. Department of State to participate in the Exchange Visitor Program for Secondary School Students.

One of the first Brazilian students to come to the US to participate in the program was Léo Valter Tschiedel during the school year 1964-1965, who then returned to Brazil to become a doctor and is now retired. Reached by messenger, Léo commented “What a year! I still feel like I am an American too!!”

The last Brazilian student to attend Weston for a semester was Bruna Menezes in fall 2018, while Gui Pereira was the last student to attend for a full year, graduating from Weston High School on the Town Green in 2018. The Owl, along with two other Weston families, hosted Gui, while others in the Weston community supported requests for lunch money when the full-year funding ran dry, and invited him to events and adventures including trips to Minnesota and New York. 

Gui, as all his “exchange moms” agree, is unique in his love of adventure, new challenges, and sharing his light. Two of us, the Owl and Alyson Muzila whose family also hosted for a few months, have kept in touch with Gui in the years since graduation. In one of the best surprise moves ever executed, Gui arrived last Friday for a visit from Montreal where he is currently studying neuroscience at Concordia University. After a Covid test, Gui will leave today for his next semester at school–and the Owl family hopes to visit him during April break this year (Covid-willing).

(L to R): Lukas M WHS’19, Alex M WHS ’22, Gui WHS ’18, Ava M WHS ’30, Sam M. WHS ’26, Owlets WHS’25

Over a nice Brazilian rice and beans dinner on Sunday, the Owl and Gui talked about his time at Weston, and what’s next.

“It was my experience at Weston High School and with my “exchange moms” and families  that made me realize that I was “do mundo” (of the world)–that I wanted to study and learn and live outside of Brazil for longer than just a year,” says Gui. “I found Weston to be incredibly warm and friendly, and it opened such new possibilities for me.” [Note: the entirety of Gui’s thank you letter to the Weston community is copied below, and was published on Weston Community facebook in June 2018].

On the Owl’s side, Gui brought us joy and laughter, and new experiences too. While we are half-Brazilian, we had not ever thought of putting ketchup on pizza [a Porto Alegre quirk–and one we still don’t abide haha] or using the second-person “tu” in Portuguese (São Paulo state uses only first or third person). His love of theatre, drama and dancing drew one Owlet into middle school drama – and brought Gui into a production of The Nutcracker with Dance Prism. 

As for how Gui wound up at Concordia, he gives the credit “100%” to Weston: “It was by living in Weston and seeing so many friends getting into college that I learned more about the application process, which is very different from the Brazilian system I was used to,” said Gui. “Studying in Weston has also helped me tremendously with English and I’m certain that if it wasn’t for my time here, I wouldn’t feel as ready to continue studying abroad.” 

On the Weston to Brazil side, the last exchange student traveled from Weston to Porto Alegre in June 2015 (and traveled back in August, don’t worry). Kymberli Darby WHS’16 was contacted by Gui yesterday and had this to say about her experience: “My time in Porto Alegre is something I will remember for the rest of my life. It was absolutely amazing to be completely immersed in a new country, learn about the culture, and meet such lovely people; two months really wasn’t enough. I’ll always be grateful to everyone who welcomed me with open arms, how much I learned and I’ll treasure Brazil forever.”

Kymberli Darby WHS’16 and Gui

So what’s going on with the Exchange Programs? Spanish teacher Nick Pezzote was the director from 2016-2019, and left his role without a successor being named. This was before the pandemic hit and since that time no one was hired to take on the role. And we all know that the pandemic has put travel essentially on ice…but the exchange program was frosty even before then. What’s going on?

The Owl reached out to both Kathy Baker, Director of World Languages and to Paul Peri, WHS principal. Both responded that more exchange program possibilities (post-pandemic) would be great, but there is not anyone in place at this time who can handle the amount of detail work that program oversight requires. And of course, the pandemic makes international exchange incredibly difficult. Both, however, confirmed their belief in the importance of cultural and language exchange.

“From what I’ve gathered, there’s a huge appetite for this to return/continue/blossom with lots of support,” said Paul Peri.  “The pandemic has made all travel and exchange difficult to impossible, but I’m hearing great things. I am confident that once travel opens up, we will find someone to take on the director role again.”

The former director of the program in Porto Alegre, Brazil, also expressed her support of the exchange. While various program documentation and official bureaucratic forms need to be completed in order to start up the exchange again, it is a huge deal for the high school, with multiple people applying each year for each spot (there were four competing for the one slot in 2017). 

While now is not the time for the exchange program (or programs, to include at least France or others) to be actively in place, it is time for Weston to make plans for its future. The Owl is 100% committed to helping out in any way. Over the last 20 years, our family has hosted 11 students and soccer players both in Brazil and in the US and it is one of our favorite things to do. We now have “extended family” in Copenhagen, Stockholm, San Francisco, Jamaica, England, Buenos Aires, and of course, Montreal. Our next arrival should be in a couple of weeks when we host a Brit soccer coach and learn how to put “u”s in colour and favourite, and take the piss out of each other which is just the weirdest thing ever. 

Go ‘cats.  

++Gui’s Letter to Weston, June 2018++

Dear Weston Community,

Today is the day I am leaving Weston–saying goodbye to all my friends, teachers and especially, to my three host families, or as I usually say, just “my families”. A million years ago yet seemingly yesterday (August 18th, 2017) I got off a plane (my first time outside of Brazil) not knowing anything or anybody. But I learned…quickly I learned to be a team member of Cross Country, Math Team, Winter Show, Spring Musical and Graduation. I also started a Brazilian Culture Club. Outside of Weston, I learned ballet and danced with Dance Prism. These are a few highlights of the best year of my life, glad to know it got to happen here, in Weston.

I am proud to say that most people I have met say that I have changed their lives for better, that I have brightened their days and shown kindness, love and respect. I thank you for those comments –it was because of you, Weston community, that I was able to do everything I did. Without all the support from you, I wouldn’t even imagine how this whole experience would be.

Weston is a wonderful place to live, what a great community filled with amazing people, don’t you think?! Sometimes it is tough to find a bad point about this wealthy land of love, it seems so perfect. I guess my only feedback on that (may I?) is that I hope that Weston remembers to open its doors to the outside, like you did for me. Because there is an outside– I come from there, a place very very far from the Town Green. There, people do not always have food on their tables, do not always have a bus to drive them to school, and cannot count on having a job tomorrow. I bet there are many other “outsides” I can’t even imagine.

Thank you to those who befriended me, taught me, patiently explained weird things like yellow school buses, 8 day school schedules, miles vs kilometers, and well, milk. Lots of things. I treasure my friends, my teachers, my families and my host dogs, cats and pigs. I will always try to pay it forward.

And last but not the least, I have two more things I ask. The first is for you to be fully aware that  Weston High School has had a partnership with my school in Brazil since 1961 and every year a student from there comes to Weston to spend a semester or a year attending the High School. So, if you have been living here and had no clue that this was a thing, please take the time to learn more. In addition, a student from Weston can also go to Porto Alegre, Brazil and spend a summer there. The experience of homestay and living in a foreign country is unique. Challenge your sons and daughters outside of Weston–they will grow and mature from their experience.

My second ask is this: Open your houses! Give the exchange students a chance and step up when the high school is looking for a host family. Every year the high school (and me personally this year) has been looking for host families for the next exchange student and it is really hard. The next exchange student is Bruna and she is coming in September. I can’t believe it’s been so hard to find someone interested in sharing culture, life experiences and once more, love. As me, Bruna, Rafaela, Pietá and so on, there were and there will be many others! So help this community to embrace the outside as a chance to make the inside even better.

And again, Thank you!

The exchange student from 2018, Gui.

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