Hill teens off to Africa to build bridges across cultures
If the words “French exchange program” conjure up images of the Eiffel Tower or the Champs-Élysées, think again. When Springside School students and faculty depart June 19 on the school’s new French immersion exchange program, they will not be heading to France. They won’t even be heading to Europe. Instead, their destination will be Senegal, West Africa.
From June 19 through July 4, five Springside School upper level French students and four Springside faculty members will travel and live in Senegal, visiting the city of Dakar as well as villages in northern Senegal. Through home stays with Senegalese families and visits to several schools, including an all-girls school in Dakar, students will be immersed in the Senegalese way of life, learning as much about that world as about themselves.
They will be stepping outside of their comfort zone in many ways. In addition to living in a French- speaking country for two weeks, Springside students and their faculty chaperones will be in a non-western, Muslim culture in a country that claimed independence as recently as 1960.
“When people think of Islam, they think of the Middle East, and when they think of French, they think of Paris. But there is an entire section of the African continent that brings together both,” explained Springside History teacher, Margaret Smith. “These girls are going to be speaking French in a Muslim culture in West Africa.”
They will also be rooming together, sometimes all in one room on foam mattresses on the floor, other times on the rooftop under the mosquito netting. “By challenging themselves to honor differences and seek common ground, every girl in the program will learn how to live more productively and justly in a global world,” said French teacher Stephanie Kasten. “Using their critical thinking skills, together they will observe, experience, question, hypothesize, compare and contrast many things, including water usage and waste, the role of women and religious practices.”
The trip purposefully created a girl-to-girl component, as Springside students will also be connecting with female students in two different schools, one in the urban capital of Dakar and the other in a rural village. They will visit classes, attend lectures and engage in debates with Senegalese students. They will even be doing a performance about a novel they have read for the trip.
Cultural exchange is a large part of the experience, with Senegalese students cooking a Senegalese meal for their American visitors and Springside students cooking an “American” meal for their hosts. Sightseeing trips will include a visit to Goree Island, one of the largest slave-holding and processing forts during the Atlantic slave trade from the 16th into the 19th century. They will also visit a blacksmith shop, take a tour of Saint Louis on a horse cart and more.
The five Springside students going on the trip — Melissa Beight of Rydal, Amanda Culp of Chestnut Hill, Hilary McDonnell of Blue Bell, Carly Schwartz of Erdenheim and Leise Trueblood of Gwynedd Valley — have already been connecting with their Senegalese counterparts in Dakar virtually via a “Ning” they have created. (A Ning is an online platform for people to create their own social networks. You can learn more about Nings at www.ning.com.)
The Springside exchange program to Senegal is being funded by several sources. Student expenses are funded largely by the families, with added support from Springside’s Rebmann Fund. Faculty expenses are being covered by Springside’s Ashmead Fund, and the Class of 1989 Fund for Faculty Enrichment supported an exploratory faculty trip to Senegal last summer. Meanwhile, thanks to a significant grant from former Springside parents in memory of their daughter, The Alisa Burgis Endowed Foreign Travel Support Fund will help defray costs for students who travel on Springside-sponsored annual trips abroad.
The five Springside students going on the trip have worked hard themselves to raise funds to support travel expenses and have done so in a politically conscious way that benefits both women and children in Africa. The girls have raised over $3,000 through the sale of “Made with Love” rubber bracelets. The bracelets are made by a women’s cooperative in Djenne, Mali, where women who make the bracelets are paid over three times the going rate for the bracelets by ASAO, the Association du Senegal et de l’Afrique de l’Oest, an NGO in Senegal. ASAO also created and runs l’Empire des Enfants, a crisis center for exploited children in Dakar that provides shelter, meals, education and training programs. Part of the proceeds of the bracelet sales support l’Empire des Enfants and Springside students will visit the center while in Senegal.
There will be community service elements to the trip, including renovating a former fire pump house into a youth center and library. While other service efforts were planned, the trip is proving to be more about relationship building and partnering together. The Senegalese hosts for Springside keep saying they want the girls to experience the “teranga (hospitality) of Senegal” or the hospitality of Senegal.
This isn’t a one-and-done trip, said Kasten. “We plan on returning to Senegal every other year to continue our relationships with our sister schools. The bridges Springside girls build in partnership with their Senegalese counterparts will be transformational on both sides of the Atlantic and will help every girl develop her capacity for leadership in the 21st century.”
For more information, call 215-247-7200, ext. 7159 or ext. 7131.
Elisabeth “Betsy” Torg is Media Relations Coordinator for Springside School.