Journey Across Borders: My Reflections on a Transformative Exchange Experience


Ellie Falk and Anna Solomon

A collage of vibrant memories from the South Africa Exchange.

Have you sat in Gallery 2 in the last week or so? Well, even if you have, you shouldn’t have. Gallery 2 has been reserved for exchange students from South Africa and Madrid. All the exchange students are lovely people, but did both groups have to come simultaneously, right ahead of finals week?

Recently, I hosted an exchange student, Anna Solomon, from South Africa. It was her first time in the U.S., and she couldn’t wait to explore the city of Chicago. Prior to arriving here, Anna enjoyed her experiences in D.C. and New York. But her favorite was Chicago.

Anna said, “Ms. Dorer did an outstanding job with the itinerary, even though it was such a short time to plan lots of activities. The itinerary gave us time to explore Chicago and a bit of time with our host families. Checking out Latin School was cool, too, because it’s nothing like our school—the teaching styles and everything are so different. It was really exciting to get a taste of a new culture, especially in the drama scene.”

Similarly, Kitty Prier, a South African exchange student from Cedar House, loved the exchange. “I liked how much free time we got because it allowed my friends and me to explore the neighborhoods and go to lots of the places we wanted to without worrying about missing out, and I thought the things Latin planned out were very fun and interesting,” she said. “I found it very fun to meet new people with completely different cultures and organize fun activities for them. I’ve had a wonderful time growing close with so many people I would probably not have, and found this exchange as a whole very memorable.”

However, this was not my first time meeting the exchange students. During Project Week last year, I went to South Africa and stayed with Anna. We clicked instantly. It was as though we were best friends of 10 years rather than only knowing each other for six days. When we found out that she was going to spend only six days in Chicago with me, we were distraught. Our misery increased when we discovered the dates of this exchange were during the lead-up to finals week, one of the busiest times of the semester.

Many other exchange students and hosts agreed. More than six days were needed. Kitty said, “I would say that the only downside to this exchange was that unfortunately, I didn’t get to see and hang out with my exchange partner properly. Neither did many of the others, because of the busy school time we came. They often had school work to complete, although they still made a good effort to hang out with us when they could as well.”

When I traveled to South Africa, I spent a full day going to class with my host, as did the rest of the Latin students. This time truly highlighted the differences between our education system and theirs. I believe this difference broadened my understanding and appreciation for the school system that runs in America. I wish the South African exchange students would have been able to join us for more classes to truly understand why Latin and America learn the way we do.

Mohale Magerman, a student from Cedar House, shared a similar opinion. She said, “I think we didn’t get to learn a lot about the teaching system because there wasn’t enough time, and it could’ve been interesting to be in more classes.”

I agree with Mohale, because to grasp the true meaning and understanding of the American school system, you have to spend a bit more time in actual classes.

In South Africa, the school system is very different. Your high school education leads up to the ultimate final set of tests called Matric. In this system, you take a series of modules in your ninth-grade year to understand what you would like to take as you go on in your high school career, when you get to tenth grade you choose anywhere from seven to nine subjects to study for the rest of high school, which must include your first language, second language, and math.

This way of learning is entirely different from our school system in America, and it would have been nice if they could have had more of a glimpse into our education. But due to the stressful time of year and lack of time, they weren’t able to truly grasp how our education system works. Even though the exchange students spent little time with us here, many realized a difference between their school’s environment and Latin.

Anna described her feelings about the difference between Cedar House and Latin’s environments. “It seems to me that at Latin, I noticed there was more pressure put on the kids to do well,” she said. “And that this doesn’t help their stress levels. While at Cedar House less pressure is put on the kids to get perfect grades, [they] still do well with less stress.”

I also noticed that the students were under less pressure at Cedar House, which positively benefited them. Because they were not as stressed about getting A’s in everything, they could study more effectively with a clearer mind. If the exchange students were able to understand the Latin environment a little more, they could have helped us create an environment more like Cedar House.

The exchange truly highlighted the differences between the two cultures. I got to see how a girl who was very similar to me lived in a completely different part of the world. The matching process and pairing of the exchanges was done very well. Milena Sjekloca, Upper School history teacher, and Benita November, a faculty member at Cedar House, did a great job pairing every student with their host families.

And some Madrid host families and exchange students felt the same about their pairings. Sophomore Elena Tognarelli said, “I really enjoyed meeting them, and I feel that they matched us up very nicely. My family and friends love our exchanges, and the experience has helped me improve my Spanish.”

This experience was great, but all in all, I wish that the South African exchange students had been here for longer. Due to the exchange being so short, my family and I decided to host Anna for an additional two weeks to maximize her time in Chicago and so we could spend more time together. After coming to Chicago, the whole exchange group ventured back to New York, where they saw many iconic sights. Sadly, on December 8, the whole exchange group left to return to their home in Cape Town, South Africa. But instead, Anna joined my family and me back in Chicago for another 11 days, so we could have more fun together.

The exchange program broadened many people’s perspectives and was a life-changing experience for many. And lastly, and most importantly, it was fun for everyone involved.