Chesapeake Academy 7th grader Claire Keesee has quite a story to tell classmates about her summer vacation. She spent four weeks as an exchange student in Guatemala, living with a host family, practicing Spanish, and experiencing the culture of the Central American country known as “the land of eternal spring.”
Claire, whose family resides in Hartfield, was one of a group of middle- and high-school students participating in Faces & Our Cultures, a cultural exchange program that brings Guatemalan students between the ages of 11 and 17 to the United States for eight weeks during the school year and sends American students to Guatemala in the summer.
Chesapeake Academy is one of nearly a hundred private schools that participate in Faces & Our Cultures. Head of School Debbie Cook was delighted to find a program that includes middle-schoolers. “This is the first year we are participating and we are delighted with the opportunity for our students to gain real world experience with Guatemalan culture and Spanish language immersion. By participating in this unique program, they discover the importance of global interdependence. We believe hosting foreign students as well as encouraging our students to explore the larger world enriches the educational experience at Chesapeake Academy,” she says.
Claire became interested in going to Guatemala after her family hosted Anika Samayoa, who lived with the family last fall and attended Chesapeake Academy. Claire and her older sister Emmaline, a student at Christchurch School, traveled to Guatemala City to live with Anika’s family—father Vladimir, mother Sonia, and elder sister Priscilla. During her first week in Guatemala, Claire attended classes with Anika at the Colegio Internacional Montessori, a K-12 school that promotes bilingual education and values cultural exploration and exchange.
“The school year in Guatemala runs from January through October, so students in the exchange program have the chance to learn what school is like in another country,” says Claire’s mother Julie, who is the Assistant Head of School at Chesapeake Academy.
Although it was challenging for Claire to follow classes conducted in Spanish, the experience made her determined to become more proficient in the language. There were no language problems outside of class, however. “The Guatemalan students are bilingual, so it was easy to talk with them,” she says.
After a week of classes, Claire joined other exchange students from Virginia for an educational tour. “We visited museums and Mayan ruins and historical sites throughout the country,” she says.
The group also went horseback riding in the countryside, swam in the Pacific Ocean, toured a coffee plantation, rode a zip line stretched over the canopy of a tropical forest and visited Antigua, the Spanish colonial city built in the sixteenth century. One of the hotels where the group stayed maintained a turtle sanctuary, and Claire was allowed to help a newborn turtle find its way into the ocean. During her final week in Guatemala, she was back in class with Anika.
“I had no idea there was so much history in Guatemala, and so much to learn about the people and the culture,” Claire says. She found the food “absolutely great,” enjoying meals of beans and tortillas and fresh vegetables that her host family incorporated into everything they made.
Going out to dinner was also a learning experience. “I discovered that many of the places to eat are American chain restaurants, and the Guatemalans love them,” she says.
Guatemala City is also home to American-style malls, but there are still many traditional markets. Claire says she learned that shopping in a foreign country can be quite different from what she has been accustomed to at home. “In one market I was approached by a lady who really wanted me to buy from her, and she followed me all around the market trying to sell me something,” she says.
Claire also witnessed the mania that possesses many Central and South Americans during the weeks of the World Cup. “After class we would all go downstairs to watch the soccer matches. Even though Guatemala did not have a team in the World Cup, it seems that everyone picks a team to follow and they get quite boisterous during matches,” she says.
If the Keesees are a representative sample of the impact of this exchange program, it has all the marks of success. The two families exchange emails regularly, and the Samayoa girls are coming back to visit the Keesees in the fall.
“I’m looking forward to going back to Guatemala. It’s an amazing place,” Claire says.
pictured: Claire and Emmaline Keesee at the Mayan ruins near Tikal, Guatemala