Ten German exchange students are currently attending classes in Heathwood’s Upper School, marking the start of what promises to be an ongoing partnership with a sister school near Cologne, Germany.
The partnership arose when Upper School Head George Scouten visited Germany last year in support of Heathwood’s international student program, which brings 12-16 students to campus each year from around the world. When Dr. Scouten toured the Bodelschwingh Gymnasium in the village of Windeck-Herchen, he realized it had a lot in common with Heathwood: it was a Protestant school with a strong academic reputation, a focus on developing the whole child, and a robust outdoor and environmental education program. What really piqued Dr. Scouten’s interest was that Bodelschwingh also had an international exchange program already in place, with partner schools around the world. When he met with their Head of School, the two quickly agreed to form a new partnership.
“Everyone benefits from this kind of interaction,” Dr. Scouten said. “Their students can come here and learn about the U.S. and how school is done elsewhere, and likewise, when our students visit there, they’ll really be able to get to know German students, families, and places. It’s very different from being there as a tourist.”
Heathwood’s first visit to our sister school will take place during this year’s Winterim week in early March, when 10-12 students will travel to the Cologne region with Dr. Scouten and Upper School history teacher John Adams. Students will stay with host families, attend classes at the Bodelschwingh Gymnasium, explore local culture, history, and terrain, and go to a German professional soccer game. Interest in hosting Heathwood students among Bodelschwingh Gymnasium families was so strong that some 80 families are reported to have applied.
Heathwood students on the Winterim trip will also have the opportunity to reconnect with the German students who are here now. Those students arrived on October 19 and will be here through November 8. In addition to attending classes at Heathwood, they have taken field trips around the state and spent extensive time with the Heathwood families who are hosting them.
One such family is the Meriwethers, whose sons Fletcher, ’19, and Jackson, ’21, are both close in age to Marco Illian, the German student who is staying in their home. For parent and Heathwood yoga teacher Pam Meriwether, the decision to host an exchange student was an easy one: "Robert and I both grew up traveling and have especially cherished the friendships we've made on our journeys. We were excited to give our children the opportunity to form similar cross-cultural friendships by hosting an exchange student here in Columbia. We have already seen benefits in our children’s ability to see our own culture through other eyes, and to see a foreign culture embodied in a real person rather than through study and media."
The Meriwether boys agreed that hosting an international student has not only been fun but also broadened their horizons.
"The most fun thing about having Marco in our house has been getting to know him and simply spending time with him,” Fletcher said. “We have discovered many things we have in common, like the music we listen to and the subjects we study. The biggest difference seems to be the size of things in America (large) relative to Germany."
Jackson added, "For me, the most fun thing about having a German visitor in my house has been seeing his reaction to having American food for the first time. He likes our food a lot, but says that people in his culture consume less. Unlike my school days, his are often varied in length. Some days they only have 6 hours of school, while other days they have 7. Also, having Marco here brings everything you would expect and more from getting a new roommate: jokes, laughter, new experiences, and lots of fun."
For Marco too, the exchange has been more than worthwhile: "What I enjoy the most during my stay in the US is basically spending time with my host family or time at school just to see and experience how things work here and how they are similar or different to what we are doing in Germany. The trips we’re doing are also much fun and we get to see many amazing natural and cultural places."