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Forging a Cultural Bridge

Students a world apart come together for sake of learning
by: Vern Uyetake, 
West Linn students Sarah Denson, left, and Ari Hopleinson, right, talk with exchange student Benoit Gauchet.

A sea may separate the two, but it didn't take long for Juliet Jacobsen and Benoit Gachet to realize they have a lot in common.

The two 15 year olds - Jacobsen from West Linn, Gachet of Annecy, France - have been spending the last few weeks together as part of a foreign exchange program at West Linn High School. Gachet and two other students have been immersed in American - and Oregon - culture since their arrival.

Gachet is staying with Jacobsen's family as he shadows her in school.

'It's been good,' Jacobsen said. 'It's been different to have another person in the house. Because I'm used to being the only child.'

'It's great,' said Gachet, still not completely fluent in English.

Hosting exchange students is a common rite for many high school students. It's the sixth year that the West Linn High School French program and teacher Rhonda Case have hosted students from France through a local non-profit called Andeo International Homestays.

But no matter how routine it may have become at schools all over Oregon, it's always an intriguing glimpse into the interaction between two cultures.

And for the families and students involved, there is nothing routine about it.

'I love it,' Jacobsen's mother, Liza, said. 'He's been so enjoyable. It just makes you think about that part of the world where he's from.'

For Gachet, the most exciting times have been what is routine for many families. Going to the grocery store to pick out a nice, thick steak.

'It was a big American steak,' Gachet said.

Accompanying the family to local soccer games.

'I love sports,' said Gachet, whose favorite is skiing in the French Alps nearby his hometown.

He also has learned to love many traditionally American sports. The Jacobsens bought him a baseball bat and skateboarding clothes.

'He saw some kids nearby playing baseball, and said, 'I've got to try that,'' Liza said. 'So we got him a bat.'

The French group also has had intermittent trips to Portland for shopping and seeing the sights.

'I've enjoyed Portland,' Gachet said. 'It's a nice city.'

He also has enjoyed sampling different restaurants in Lake Oswego and Portland with the Jacobsens.

'It's fun to see it from someone else's eyes,' Liza said.

Things that most Americans take for granted have also struck Gachet. Liza is a real estate broker, and on several occasions she has taken Gachet to open houses.

There, Gachet marveled at the expansive nature of American architecture.

'They have room that we don't have in France,' Gachet said. 'The houses are much bigger here. I like it a lot.'

The nature of the interaction between the host family and the exchange student is all part of the program, Case said.

She said the focus is not to dwell on the differences between two cultures but to experience, and embrace, what the two can offer one another.

'They're that learning teen-age life is less about which country you're from and more about what age you are and what concerns you have,' Case said.

She pointed to the fact that all the students have I-Pods but the French students had never tasted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Another instance of the culture's similarities is when an American student asked how to say 'hi-five' in French. Only to hear the response was 'hi-five,' just with a French accent.

Jacobsen, who has traveled to Denmark before with her family, is intrigued by different cultures.

'I have always loved traveling,' she said. 'I've always loved experiencing different cultures.'

Case said the goal is for the French students to learn, in trial-by-fire fashion, all they can about American culture and language.

They attend classes at the school for three weeks, before leaving for a weeklong, sightseeing trip to Seattle and then return to France.

Case said having the French students present always creates a vibrant dynamic in classes, especially in French.

'They're not just vacationing,' Case said. 'We also use them in our language classes, to just interact with the students, whether they're just having conversations or helping with grammar.'

One difference that Gachet remarked on was the freedom American students have during their school day. Case said this group of French students has 10 classes per day, and pursuits such as drama or photography are considered extracurricular activities.

'They're favorably impressed with our high school atmosphere and students,' Case said. 'They like how students are able to accomplish a great deal even though the atmosphere is a little more laid back.'

It's all part of the learning experience.

'We've had nothing but favorable reports,' Case said. 'There are families that have done it more than once. We've had friendships that have lasted a very long time.'

In fact, Case noted one relationship forged in the mid-1990s that is still going on today.

'They both have families and are working, but they have this friendship that has been going on at least 14 to 15 years,' she said.

Whether Jacobsen and Gachet stay in contact that long is yet to be determined. But one thing that is for certain is they've become fast friends on this trip.

'I thought it would be kind of awkward,' Jacobsen said. 'But it's been fun.'

For information on how to host an international student, visit www.andeo.org or call 503-274-1776.