Study abroad programs have taken off over the past twenty years, expanding beyond university to become common summer and even high school experience. Yet despite their ubiquity, study abroad remains mostly within reach of the wealthy, either as hosts or (more frequently) as exchange students, seeking language immersion, area study, or simply a comfortably different cultural experience.
While nothing is inherently wrong with these programs, rarely do students in developing countries get a chance to encounter their peers in other developing countries, and even less frequently at the high school level.
The April 2018 USAP–Abaarso exchange attempted to start this, albeit in short form. It brought together two groups that shared the experience of being a high-achieving, low-income student with dreams (not to mention the hopes of their family and community) that depend largely on their ability to get a quality education. But the differences, at least initially, seemed greater – different religions, languages, cultures, and so much more.
For one week, nine Zimbabwean USAP students lived, ate, slept and attended classes with students at Abaarso School in Somaliland. During the afternoons the students and their hosts worked on a week-long project to identify and address common issues in their home countries that they could, in the future, work together to address. The memorable last night went until 2am, and produced a website, posters, issue statements, and a pledge to return to their home country and use their education for the greater good, which all of the students signed.
In a sign of the program’s impact, just last week, I Skyped with an Abaarso student studying in Vermont during an exchange year as an 11thgrader. During the exchange, she hosted a USAP student who is now a freshman at Amherst. Unsurprisingly, I learned from the Abaarso alum that the two had been on the phone for an hour just the day before.
Here were two young women – one from Somaliland and another from Zimbabwe; one Muslim another Christian; one an exchange 11thgrader at a small school in Vermont and the other a freshman at Amherst, who had spent less than a week together, and built a connection deep enough that they still talked at length a year later.
As one of the participants said after the program finished: “We are like a garden full of different flowers. We all dress, look and speak differently but like flowers in a garden no matter how different they are, they just want to bloom beautifully when spring comes.”
A follow-up survey afterward showed the impact quantitatively. Every student involved said that their perceptions of people from the other culture had changed, and every student said that we should hold a similar exchange again (we have actually just held an exchange in 2019). More than a few Abaarso students have said that the exchange was the most transformative and memorable experience that they have had in their time at the school, a remarkable sentiment from students who attend a school that is different from anything else in their country. In just a week, the impact was enormous on both sides.
It is commonly said that Africa is going to be the most important continent of the twenty-first century. If that is to be the case, then mutual understanding between countries is essential, and exchanges of this kind must become a more common experience for students. Hopefully the Abaarso – USAP exchange is just one of many more to come.
This blog was written by James Linville, Headmaster at HALI organisation, Abaarso School www.abaarsoschool.org