The hugs were nice, the hot dogs couldn’t be beat and the lack of a strict dress code was awesome. “We can wear what we want and we’re not criticized,” said Clara Brunel, a French seventh-grader in T-shirt and jeans, during her last day in West Michigan.
That was a big plus for Clara and 22 other students who spent more than two weeks in late April with students from Northview Public School’s Crossroads Middle School. At their Catholic school in Marseille, shorts and flip-flops are strictly interdit (forbidden).
But as for Grand Rapids’ infamously cloudy skies, well, it’s not southern France. “I like the city. It’s clean,” Chloe Larroque said through an interpreter. “But the weather is not good compared to France.”
The students of College Chevreul Blancarde brought a bit of France to Crossroads, where the “French Back to Back” program has facilitated five cross-cultural exchanges. Nineteen Crossroads students will travel in mid-June to Marseille, where they will stay with the families of students they hosted here.
It’s part of the French American Student Exchange Program, which is used by other Michigan districts including Rockford. Teacher Kathy Williams coordinates the program at Crossroads Middle through an after-school French club.
Bake sales, pop-can drives and parent contributions raised about $5,000 to host the French students. Northview families are paying $2,100 each for their students to visit France in June. “They become interested in doing this program because they are simply interested in all things French,” Williams said.
Learning the language, making friends
The French students stayed with Northview students’ families, forming friendships and picking up valuable language skills. Communication was eased by Google Translate and other handy technologies, parents said.
Amy Todd said her daughter, Katie, got on well with her French guest thanks to their similar interests. “They’ve had a good time,” Todd said. “The technology really helped.”
Teacher Justine Hagobian called it a great chance for her French students to learn English and experience life in America. “They’re going to stay friends with the American kids,” Hagobian predicted.
The French formed friendships on getaways with their host families. Some went to Chicago, Mackinac Island and the Muskegon dunes. One student went to a family wedding.
The students sat in on French and art classes at Northview High School and saw a presentation from Native Americans at Crossroads Middle. They also took organized outings to the Kalamazoo Air Zoo (a big hit), an Amish farm (not so much, too smelly) and Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Museum Center, where they rode the carousel and took in the Titanic exhibit.
At their farewell dinner, some students shed a few tears over leaving their new American friends. “They hug a lot,” said Chloe Larroque. “We can be ourselves here.”
Maroon 5 and Culver’s
As for the Northview students, they were impressed by how much English their French counterparts knew – and how much fun they were to hang with. “We’ve had a blast,” said seventh-grader David Tay, whose family hosted Benjamin Lhospice. “I got to see a lot of their culture, and I learned a good amount of French. It was fun to play charades, figuring out what we were trying to say to each other.”
David also was impressed to hear the French students singing along to Maroon 5, his favorite band, and that they knew about Culver’s restaurants. He’s looking forward to visiting Marseilles in June and staying with Benjamin, whom he quickly grew to like. “It’s like having a brother you never really fight with,” David said. “A best friend that lives with you.”