By Vivien Mao
Spending a junior year abroad in Spain or China, or soaking in the language and culture in a two or three-week immersion trip to Argentina, Mexico or France is an experience many students have taken advantage of, but not since Chiara Valdesolo of Italy graduated in 1997 and Meri-Tuuli Mertsu Lehmuskallio of Finland graduated in 1994, has Harvard-Westlake formally hosted a foreign exchange student.
When the school offered Russian as a foreign language, many students took part in an exchange program with a school in St. Petersburg. Students from the school in St. Petersberg spent several weeks on the Coldwater Canyon campus, and Harvard-Westlake students spent several weeks there. School counselor Luba Bek first came to Harvard-Westlake as one of the teachers at the St. Petersburg school, accompanying students.
And for many years, there was a reciprocal exchange with Tamagawa-Gakuen, a K-12 school in a Tokyo suburb. Harvard-Westlake students spent two weeks in the summer staying with host families and attending classes at the Japanese school.
In the spring, the teenager in whose home the Harvard-Westlake student had stayed, came to Los Angeles and stayed for two weeks, the guest becoming the host.
Both the Russian and the Japanese exchange programs ended when the school stopped offering those languages.
Harvard-Westlake is a member of several educational groups including the G20 schools and Institutes of Maximum Capacity, which connect Harvard-Westlake to secondary schools all around the world. Some of those schools exchange students with each other, but apparently no students have wanted to spend a year at Harvard-Westlake. Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and Robertson College in Turkey, both G20 schools, trade four or five foreign exchange students each year.
Harvard-Westlake used to be a part of an exchange program through American Field Studies (AFS), but stopped participating in AFS because of a declining willingness of families to host the foreign students for a whole school year, Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts said.
“The last time we had a program like that was through American Field Study, which is a worldwide organization with chapters in many different countries,” Huybrechts said. “I would bet that there are some teachers here who were once AFS students. At any rate, we had AFS students here up until the late ’90s. But they need a home to live in for the full year, and that was sometimes a problem. Finding a host family, because keeping a teenager for a year is a huge commitment.”
“My husband and I have hosted two full year exchange students: one who went to University High School and one who went to our school. We’ve actually hosted several students for anywhere from one week to six weeks in our house, and I will tell you that in the city of Los Angeles, it’s just hard to find host families, period. It’s not just Harvard-Westlake,” Huybrechts said.
“I’m sure that there is still an AFS chapter in Los Angeles, but it was becoming a little weak around the year 2000 primarily because it’s just hard to find families anywhere in Southern California,” she said.
“When our students stayed with us, they sometimes went to dinner at other Harvard-Westlake families’ houses,” Huybrechts said. “They would go to Shabbat because we’re not Jewish and some of our families wanted them to experience that. Or, some other Harvard-Westlake families or families in Los Angeles would want to take them out for weekend outings or something like that. You just need an infrastructure of family support for a program like that.”
Lehmuskallio, who came from her native Finland to enroll as a senior in 1993 to 1994, lived with the Huybrechts family and took part in gymnastics, dancing, singing, acting and much more.
“I got to take more free classes than other students as I didn`t get any credit for my studies back home,” Lehmuskallio said. “I did have ‘normal’ classes too; I had algebra and AP English. Most interesting was Spanish in English. We had a small happy group and as we studied, we learned a lot, which was enjoyable. I got nice class mates in every class I took. Especially from those classes where we were able to talk more freely, like dance and acting.”
She said she has remained close with the Huybrechts family.
“I feel I still know them well. My host parents have visited me two times, once with my host sister Cassie. I have visited them once after my exchange year,” she said. “We write e-mails once in a while. They always remember my birthdays and my daughter’s and son’s birthdays with a card, which I think is wonderful. I feel very warmly about them. We have an open invitation to visit them any time. My host parents Jeanne and Dirk are special grandparents to my children, and we all hope to see them soon.”
Lehmuskallio said that during her year at Harvard-Westlake, “My family always welcomed me and my friends to their home and made me feel as a part of their family even with all the relatives. I still feel so. They could show me normal American life, which is more than one can learn from any studies. They are just wonderful people.”
Harvard-Westlake is part of the School Year Abroad program, with students going to SYA campuses in China, France and Spain, and living with host families, but students from those schools have not come here.
“We primarily just work with the SYA organization because they do get an intensive experience in language acquisition. And that’s why it’s so appealing to our students,” Huybrechts said.
The foreign language department has sponsored immersion trips during summer and winter breaks. Ranging from Cuernavaca to Argentina, students have stayed with host families for a couple of weeks. Spanish teacher Javier Zaragoza has been in charge of this program for around 20 years.
“Zaragoza now has connections in these cities. I don’t know exactly how he advertises for them but a lot of it is word-of-mouth saying that it’s a great program. He is able to find a lot of host families. Now, I think the reason he is more successful than AFS is because it’s only a two-week commitment,” Huybrechts said.
Huybrechts said that in order for a formal foreign exchange program to be reinstated they would need to feel there were families who wanted to host a student for a year. There are many possible complications in the process of “adopting” a child for a year.
“I would need someone else to get excited about it and come here and bring it to me as a proposal and to know that there was some support for it outside this office because it’s a wonderful experience, but it is a lot of work for host families and for even some of the peripheral families that get involved,” Huybrechts said.