Country dancing, student exchanges and learning about foreign cultures
The other evening in Strasbourg I had the opportunity to visit with fourteen U.S. middle and high school students who were visiting France on a two week exchange program. Actually, that’s an exaggeration. The students were too busy hanging out with their new French friends to want to spend any time with a middle-aged diplomat!
The event was “Soiree Country,” a night of country line dancing and Tex-Mex cuisine organized by l’Association Strasbourg Amities USA, a group that has paired with a similar organization in Wilmington, NC, to sponsor student exchange visits twice a year, in both directions. The association’s President, Christopher Sintes, and Treasurer, Michele Huntz, and many other dedicated volunteers open their homes and give their time to make sure American students have a great time in Alsace. The students “shadow” other kids their age, visit local tourist attractions and historical sites, and learn about French culture and language.
Such exchanges can be life changing experiences, full of unforgettable memories and friendships. For many of these teenagers, it will be their first trip outside of the United States, and their first exposure to other peoples and cultures. I will never forget my first trip abroad, as a high school junior, when I visited what was then the Soviet Union. It was the first time I’d ever had a passport, the first time I really needed to speak a foreign language, the first time I encountered the excitement of visiting a foreign country, and the first time I ever set foot inside a U.S. Embassy. Today, I’m a diplomat. So for me, my exchange visit was definitely life changing.
L’Association Strasbourg Amities USA is only one side of the equation. Back in Wilmington, high school French teacher Donna McQueen organizes home stays for French students who want to experience what life in America is like. She, along with chaperones Carol Garrison and Beverly Veals, accompanied their young charges to Strasbourg. All of them told me what a wonderfully fulfilling experience it is to host a foreign student in their home for a few weeks. All of the French host family members told me the same thing. So if you’re a high school student reading this, seriously consider getting involved in a home stay exchange visit. And if you’re a parent, think about opening your home for a couple of weeks to give a student from a foreign land an unforgettable experience in America.
But back to Soiree Country! The food was great, and entertainment and foot-stomping, heart-thumping country line dancing was coordinated by Thierry and Celine Schmitt, the directors of Country Line Dancers of Holtzheim And Kanalwackers of Bischheim, over 40 of whom attended and participated. They even succeeded in getting me out on the dance floor!
As I said, it was hard for me to compete for the attention of the students, but they were forced to listen to me make a couple of brief remarks. Here’s what I told them:
“Congratulations to you and your families for making the decision to participate in this exchange program. Learning about foreign cultures and what life is like in other countries is one of the most important educational experiences you can have. Plus, it is one of the most fun! America is a great country, but it is not the only country, and it is imperative that you learn as much as you can about the countries outside of our borders. Because if you want to be a citizen of the world, and to be a leader in the world, you need to understand and know the world.
Congratulations, as well, for choosing to visit France, one of the greatest countries in the history of civilization. Its contributions to science, philosophy, music, culture, arts and architecture, food, style, and human rights and government are second to none. And you will find no other country that is a better friend to America. As President Obama and President Sarkozy said just yesterday, France has been there for the United States since our very founding, and we have been here for France in its darkest hours of need.
I hope this visit will be the first of many, and that as you continue to pursue you studies, you will decide to spend a semester abroad, studying at a foreign university. I’m confident that you’ll find that experience to be one of the most memorable of you college career. And, if you find you like living abroad, you may end up working in a foreign country, either in business or for the government. Either way, you’re taking your first steps now to becoming citizens of the world. Congratulations, have a great time, and never stop voyaging!”