This article originally appeared in the spring 2016 Harker Quarterly.
On a brisk afternoon in mid-January, grade 8 students gathered in the middle school’s multipurpose room to receive special visitors. A group of 20 students from the World Foreign Language Middle School (WFLMS) in Shanghai had arrived for the first part of this year’s exchange between the two schools, continuing a tradition that began in 2003.
The WFLMS students, who are well-versed in English, took turns giving presentations about their daily academic lives: how they use technology to learn, their Halloween and Christmas celebrations and their annual science and art festivals. At the end, a Chinese student offered her solo acoustic guitar and vocal cover of Taylor Swift’s “Safe and Sound.” Following enthusiastic applause, the Harker and WFLMS students departed to begin their week together in earnest.
Harker’s exchange with WFLMS began shortly after the Shanghai school’s founding. Its then-head of school, Madame Luo Peiming, whose great aunt attended Harker, approached Harker’s then-head of school, Diana Nichols, about creating an exchange between the two schools.
“Just like Harker, it’s an ever-growing school,” said Jennifer Walrod, Harker’s director of global education. “They now have several campuses. They have several different types of programs.”
The two schools agreed to begin the exchange, and true to Luo’s predictions, it was a success. “It was a great fit,” Walrod said. “And so from there, it’s turned into an annual exchange.”
Students from Harker and WFLMS begin interacting months in advance of the visit by participating in discussion forums on technology and global issues, such as the effects of media on society and issues sur- rounding youth and the use of technology.
To qualify to apply for the exchange, the WFLMS students must be deeply involved in the study of English, and participation in the forums is required for those making the trip to Harker. Each year, discussions begin in the fall and last several weeks, leading up to the January visit by the WFLMS students, who spend the week staying with their Harker buddies. A second round of discussions is held toward the end of the school year before the Harker students visit China.
“We really put it in the hands of the students to be emailing back and forth,” Walrod said.
The forum discussions present an opportunity for students from both schools to learn about one another before meeting in person.
“I got to learn some things about them that helped me gauge their personality and the activities they enjoyed doing,” said Jackie Yang, grade 8.
Anna Weirich, grade 7, agreed. “It was very interesting to see what [my guest] did differently than what I did in the United States,” she said. “I loved learning about the diverse yet unique culture of the Chinese.”
During their week at Harker, the WFLMS students visit and observe classes with their buddies, embark on field trips to famous California landmarks and bond with their Harker hosts during their homestays.
In the last few years, a tour of the Stanford University campus was added to the exchange at the request of WFLMS administrators. “A lot of the kids are interested in going to college in the U.S., so now that’s just a standard field trip,” said Walrod.
They also get a big sampling of Silicon Valley culture by visiting The Tech Museum of Innovation in downtown San Jose, as well as various sites around San Francisco and Monterey.
The time the buddies spend together is especially valuable, as students from two different cultures learn about one another. on one occasion, the family of seventh grader Leland Rossi read a section of his assigned reading on Chinese history with his WFLMS buddy present. “As we read through the text and discussed it together, we were so lucky to have the perspective of Hu Fei, the eighth grader from China!” enthused Rossi’s mother, Lesley Matheson. “It was amazing to hear him bring his view of the history and politics alive. He loved it, too.”
Students also find that the exchange helps the two different cultures find common ground.
“I enjoyed going to school with them, because my buddy often found ways to relate Harker with her experiences at WFLMS and would often tell me interesting things about her school,” said Yang.
Walrod said the students are extraordinarily good at hosting due to the empathy they show for their WFLMS buddies. “They’re really good at putting themselves in their buddies’ shoes,” she said, adding that many students are initially nervous at the prospect of hosting “because it’s not like having someone over to your house for dinner.”
Seeing their buddies have a great time visiting Harker is a big confidence booster. “They really put their heart into this. They really want their buddies to have a good time,” said Walrod.
During the spring semester, Harker middle schoolers visit and stay with their WFLMS buddies as part of the annual exchange with China. For many Harker students who regularly visit family in China, the exchange program’s trip to Shanghai offers the chance to enjoy their time in the country visiting their WFLMS buddies and spending time as everyday Chinese citizens. oftentimes, Walrod said, spending time among the local citizens is a highlight of the trip for Harker students.
“That has been the regular feedback,” she said. “Everyone just thought they were typical Chinese students, and that’s what they’ll mention to me as one of their best memories.”