Horizons: Study Abroad Program Grows
The last day of classes was full of bittersweet goodbyes for exchange students Theresa Berg and Pedro Puelles Gil at The O'Neal School last month.
But among all of the adieus was a "hello" to progress for an extensive student exchange program that Upper School director Richard Catania hopes to make an integral part of the O'Neal experience.
After living in Moore County for the past 10 months and completing their junior year at O'Neal, Gil headed home to Vigo, Spain, while Berg began making plans to complete the final weeks of classes at her school in Niederkruchten, Germany.
The two students began school at O'Neal last fall with the goal of attaining fluency in English, a privilege that both say is a global necessity that many Americans take for granted.
Both also jumped into activities and became a part of the O'Neal community - Berg played soccer and ran cross country and was a cheerleader; Gil played soccer, tennis and served as a manager for the boy's basketball team.
Richard Catania believes that the opportunity to study abroad at O'Neal breaks down cultural barriers and thoroughly prepares students to become productive citizens of a globalized society.
"It's about being global and preparing to work in an environment where you will have co-workers from different countries and how to adapt," he said. "It's more than being able to tolerate another culture. You have to go beyond that. You have to learn how to love."
Catania became a U.S. citizen last year after the French native came to the U.S. 30 years ago. As he watched Berg and Gil adapt to life in Moore County, he reflected on his own relocation to the area.
"This community is extremely welcoming," he said. "It's really nice."
Catania believes Berg and Gil were ideal candidates for the program because they approached the experience with an open mind.
"It takes a certain personality, and we were spoiled," he said. "I am going to miss them tremendously next year."
Catania added that studying abroad is a "life-changing experience" that defines students' world views and allows them to grow individually.
"It provides an extraordinary independence," he said. "But you don't realize what that means until you experience it for yourself."
"That happened to me," Gil said before school ended. "I am so different [now], and I think that is very good for me."
'Brother in Spain'
Catania cultivated a similar exchange program while serving as dean of students, assistant head of the Upper School and a French teacher at Trinity School in Midland, Texas.
"It has been my passion to create this for students," he said. "In Texas, we were truly unique."
At O'Neal, Catania wants to give students the authentic experience of living in a foreign country, while also providing a tailored program that meets the goal of total immersion into a culture.
"The O'Neal experience includes those exceptional opportunities to live and study abroad, while you're still in high school," he said. "Why wait [until you are in college]?"
Catania adds that the exchange program is also a learning experience for the families who host students.
"It's just as fun to host," he said. "What results are lifelong relationships that truly bring two families together. We cannot thank our host families enough."
During her stay, Berg lived with Randy and Marina Craven and their 11-year-old daughter, Charlotte, in between Carthage and Whispering Pines.
Berg was a "pleasure" to host, according to Randy Craven, who has hosted four other exchange students with his family over the years.
"She's a member of the family," he said. "The day that she was leaving, she gave me the key to the front door, and I gave it back to her and told her that was her key and this was her house. She will always have a home here."
Holly and Carty Davis, parents of O'Neal students Brandt, Madelyn and Piper, hosted Gil. Holly said there was definitely a learning curve for hosting a student from abroad in terms of finding common ground, but Gil quickly became a part of the family, joining them on vacations and trips to sporting events, such as Carolina Hurricanes games and UNC basketball and football games.
"Pedro turned into a Carolina fan whether he wanted to or not," she said with a laugh. "[Our kids] have a brother in Spain forever."
Rising juniors Savannah Merritt and Maggie Jackson will take the program a step further next year by spending a semester studying in Bordeaux, France, and Vigo, Spain.
'I Am Fluent'
Merritt sees opportunity to become fluent in French and to make lifelong friends, as well as potential contacts.
"If I want to go live in France, I could get a job there [by having studied there]," she said. "So, I would have more places to live, and maybe I could open a French restaurant."
Before leaving, Berg imparted a few words of advice to her classmates about adapting to a new culture.
Her main suggestion: Don't be intimidated.
"It doesn't matter if you speak [the language] well because everybody will work with you if you make the effort," Berg said. "Don't be scared to say, 'I have to look this up.'"
Though the O'Neal exchange program only began last summer when two students studied in Vigo for a month, the program has made significant strides toward Catania's ultimate vision.
However, Catania emphasizes that the program's success depends on maintaining relationships and support from the community.
"It's a commitment for our entire community," he said. "We are trying to promote this kind of experience. We are educating citizens of the world."
The school is currently trying to arrange host families for next March when O'Neal plans to host ninth-graders from a school in northern France for two weeks.
Catania also hopes to start the "Pyrenees Project" in the Lower School, which would place students in a full immersion program with teachers who are native speakers of Spanish and French.
He believes the project will increase student fluency with full exposure to foreign language at an early age.
"By the time they are old enough to study abroad in college, the window for fluency is already closed," he said. "If we could, we should catch them at birth."
Almost a year after he began the program, Catania continues to push for more programs that will make cultural understanding and fluency a part of each student's academic career.
"We have to put it in motion," he said. "I would like The O'Neal School to be known in this region that there is this opportunity here. At the end of your O'Neal education, you will actually be able to put on your resume, 'I am fluent.'"
Contact Hannah Sharpe at email@example.com.
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