Where We Need Work in the Exchange Program

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This past spring break I traveled on a Global Education program to India. We saw classic sites like the Taj Mahal and the Ganges, but we spent the bulk of the trip at boarding schools in Dehradun – the girls at Welham Girls’ School, and the boys at The Doon School. During my exchange, I recognized just how far Groton’s exchange program still needs to advance. Specifically, we need to do a better job integrating exchange students into our community and making them feel as welcome as I did during my visit in India.


At Welham, a group of senior girls were assigned to facilitate our visit, but the nine of us Grotonian girls interacted with Welham students of all ages. We stayed up late with the girls our age and we were visited in our dorm by curious younger girls. One time, in the dorm bathrooms, a girl whom I was certain I had never met greeted me by name. I was initially freaked out and hurriedly scurried out of the bathroom, but in retrospect the personal nature of the gesture truly touched me. All in all, the people of Welham Girls’ School thoroughly amazed me with their hospitality.


Groton, on the other hand, could be doing much better. The first issue is exchange students’ arrival to the Circle. They are thrown onto the Circle with a Roll Call announcement and little warning of what to expect, often without a set roommate. On multiple occasions, exchange student hosts have been informed of an incoming exchange student just days before said student’s arrival. Sophie Conroy ‘19 says, “I found out that I was going to have an exchange student through an email from the deans a half hour before I left for long weekend, in which I was informed that she would be arriving the night I would return. It was frustrating to have such short notice because by the time she arrived on Monday, I wasn’t prepared to welcome her into my room.” Hosting an exchange student who may be unfamiliar with Groton’s traditions takes effort, and giving host students advance warning would help them to do so with the energy exchange students deserve.


Secondly, once exchange students are on the Circle, the community does not do enough to welcome them. Perhaps this is just a cultural difference between India and the United States, but in India I found myself almost annoyed at the faculty and staff for being too nice. Case in point: I intentionally left my phone in the dorm on my bed and the dorm head took it to her apartment so that no one would steal it, but that gesture of kindness meant I had to track her down to get it. Frustratingly kind. But can you imagine an exchange student at Groton being annoyed because people are too nice? The idea is laughable. It would be severely unfair and incorrect  to say that all dorm heads here are unkind to the exchange students, but it means a lot to go the extra mile to check on the students every single day.


More importantly than the efforts of the faculty and staff are the efforts of the students. At Welham I was impressed that the younger girls engaged us more than the senior girls who were assigned our care. Groton students can embody a welcoming attitude by going out of our way to read the emails sent out by global education representatives and learning the exchange students’ names. A welcoming attitude means saying hello in the hallways or simply flashing a comforting smile and wave. It means sitting with an exchange student at lunch if she is alone. It means actively including an exchange student when you hang out with your friends. It means when a tired, jet-lagged exchange student shows up at check-in one night in your dorm, letting them sleep the first night, but on subsequent nights, going to their room and talking to them about their home lives and how they are transitioning to the Groton bubble.


And when you learn the exchange students’ names, don’t just learn the white ones’. A point that can’t be ignored is that it is much easier to be a white exchange student who speaks English as a native language here than a minority student who speaks a different language. A good example is Scarlett Watkins, who graced our campus this fall and was so taken with us and vice-versa that she returned this winter to watch Cabaret. She stayed in Dumont’s dorm both visits.


Two days before Scarlett returned this winter, another exchange student who was also staying in Dumont’s left after her two week stay at Groton: Kally from Beijing. I will bet a large sum of money that most of the student body did not know she was here.


From where I’m standing, it appears that white exchange students integrate more easily into the school culture. They seem to make friends easier and draw more attention by the student body. Partly, this is because the student body at Groton is predominantly white, and it’s human nature to associate with people who look like us. Exchange students from arguably more “exotic”  locations like India or Tanzania, developing countries viewed with negative connotations, remain in obscurity up to and often past the point of their departures.


While I’m tempted to argue that as a student body we need to recognize that exchange students represent an opportunity for us to learn about a distant culture (and not just another version of the Western model) as much as it is for them to experience Groton, that is not the real issue. This is a kindness issue. As a community, we still have a long way to go regarding outreach. Although some individuals are stunning in their outreach efforts, generally, we treat our incoming lower schoolers poorly, and we often don’t reach out to kids we don’t know or even offer a passing hello to peers we aren’t friendly with. Simply, we are reluctant to branch out to people we don’t know.


We aren’t a mean community, but we don’t do enough when it comes to welcoming exchange students. We could stand to be much more open and kind. In the future, I charge every Groton student to treat the exchange students like real members of the community, not shadows that hover in the corner of class, lunch, sports, and check-in. We all remember how our first week at Groton felt; let’s not have our guests languish in that space for a month.