Shared Journey: EU and NC

We all have visions: raising a loving family, creating a more just and peaceful world, challenging ourselves to become our best. Teachers extend their visions to the classroom as we strive to make our students’ dreams come true. As a veteran middle school French teacher, my vision for my students and colleagues has always been to create informed global citizens, thereby designing opportunities for authentic engagement with Europeans to learn first-hand their history, culture, sustainability practices, and the arts while also using our French language skills to create even deeper understandings.

I shared this vision with the Delegation of the European Union to the United States, and they believed in me! This amazing, Nobel-Peace-Prize winning institution believes in teachers who strive to effect positive change, and they supported me under their “Getting to Know Europe” grant program for five years. The result: 20+ teachers and 120 students from my school have since visited the European Commission in Brussels, lived with Belgian host families, visited Normandy and Paris and all while using EU resources and lesson plans as part of their learning experience. Perhaps even more importantly, these EU grants provided the additional financial support needed for my colleagues and many of these students’ families who otherwise could never have afforded to participate in this enriching experience in France and Belgium.

As my students learn more about the European Union, they are excited about helping advance the EU’s “causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”. Our classroom discussions are rich with EU topics such as how to construct a peaceful community, what are economic cooperation and the single market as well as how these principles advance the mission of the European Union around the world. These topics, discussed with our Belgian and French pen pals, add diverse perspectives which bring us closer to becoming more informed global thinkers. Our school takes this learning to the community by celebrating Europe Day in May. Hundreds of families attend our events which include European foods, songs, presentations and competitions followed by a rousing Parade of EU nations through our school’s hallways.

One student wrote: The exchange program is important because it makes me want to learn more about life in other countries. It also makes learning a second language seem more important. Sharing my everyday life with an exchange student makes me realize I could be doing more important things with my time, such as learning useful things about the world. I think the role of the EU is to encourage student exchanges. These exchanges create friendships, increase intellectual curiosity, and create a feeling of solidarity with young people all over the world. Ultimately, the exchanges promote peace and prosperity.

Lara Rabinowitz — Age 14

Lara (left) welcomes her Belgian friend, Noa Closset (right) to Chapel Hill. Lara had spent a week with Noa in Liège a year earlier and has been excited to share her American culture with her international friend.

With all of the recent events in Europe, my colleagues and I were concerned that the broad participation and benefit of our European Exchange program might be severely impacted as parents would understandably be nervous about sending their 14 year-old to Belgium and France. In fact, two days after the attacks in the Brussels airport on March 22, 2016, I arrived at a meeting in our middle school library which I had previously planned for the students and parents of those potentially joining our upcoming 2017 trip. I was not even sure what to expect in terms of attendance given these events. Much to my surprise, I arrived to a virtual sea of faces of parents and their French student, all still committed to advancing the causes of peace and understanding as expressed by the mission of the EU and ultimately our exchange program.

Some of the attendees even knew that I had been at this same airport in Belgium on the same day, same hour with thirty students and five teachers exactly a year before. Adding to the timing of all of this, our school was preparing to welcome thirty-six Belgian students and teachers to our homes. Our Belgian friends missed being in the airport during this horrific event by five days, yet bravely decided to continue with their visit to our homes in North Carolina. What stands out above all else for me is the courage reflected in the actions of all of the parents and students from Chapel Hill and Belgium, as they continued to develop both an understanding and a deeper appreciation for one another.

36 Belgian students and teachers arrive in Chapel Hill, NC to meet their American pen pals. For ten days the students shared culture, language and developed strong friendships.

Since 2001, over five hundred Belgian and American teachers and students have crossed the ocean as part of this program, to learn about each other’s cultures, knowing full well that peace only comes through the understanding we achieve through a shared journey. This shared journey will continue despite malicious attempts to provoke fear and isolation.

Friendship, love, learning and solidarity have and will continue to endure. My students, colleagues and I will always be grateful for the European Union’s “Getting to Know Europe” grants; they have opened up the world for so many, and in so doing, have opened many hearts to the abundant promise of a peaceful world.

American teachers share a quiet moment with their Belgian counterparts in the school courtyard in Liège.

Robin McMahon is French teacher in Chapel Hill, NC.