In August, Senior Rocio Fuentes walked into the St. Martin’s upper school hallway. Not only was the hallway an unfamiliar place—America was completely new to her as well. There were new faces to memorize and new personalities to become accustomed to; an entirely new culture was at her fingertips.
Meanwhile, 1,000 miles away, Fuentes’ peers in Honduras were preparing for their first year of college. Unlike many of her friends, Fuentes decided to leave her home and enroll in high school in the United States. In Honduras, 11th grade is the final year of high school, according to Fuentes.
“I was super excited (when I came to America),” Fuentes said. “In my country, we just do 11th grade, and then you straight to college. Basically, this is my second senior year. If I were back home, I could be in college. I was nervous about that; I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. I’m taking a gap year. I’m doing high school again.’ At the same time, I was also super excited because (I was in) a country I’ve never been to before with so many new people, a new family, and new church. It was a good kind of nervous.”
Despite being somewhat overwhelmed by a new country and school, Fuentes quickly settled in to her new life at St. Martin’s Episcopal School. Joining International Club helped her adjust to St. Martin’s and make friends with local and international students.
“(International Club) is a group of local students and also international students who want to get together, spend time together, and plan cultural events for school,” said Upper School French Teacher and ELL Department Chair Cissy Rowley.
What started as an international ambassador program morphed into a student-led club that provides an opportunity for easy interaction between local students and international students and encourages embracing different countries and their cultures, according to Rowley.
Members of the club who are local students make sure the international students are comfortable and feel welcomed into the St. Martin’s community, according to Vice President of International Club Elizabeth Kuehne. Meetings involve a culture exchange; American students and international students share their country’s traditions, food, customs, or dances with one another, according to Senior Noemi Garo, a foreign exchange student from Honduras.
Club members also organize in a number of events, such as a hiking trip to Tunica Hills, a waffle brunch, and an upcoming Chinese New Year celebration, which will be open to the student body. The celebration will include Chinese food, calligraphy, origami, and games, according to President of International Club Karly Bruss. However, a favorite event of many club members was a French Quarter excursion.
“My favorite (outing) this year is when we went to New Orleans, and we went into the French Quarter,” said Senior Evan McCollum. “We gave a self-guided tour, went through a couple food places and Jackson Square. We hit all the highlights basically. We got to share our side of (our) culture with the international students, especially because some of them have been here for half of a year and hadn’t even gone to the French Quarter yet.”
The local students’ enthusiasm was evident in their eager participation in the event, according to Fuentes.
“My favorite event so far is when we went to the French Quarter because the people in the club who are from the U.S. were so excited to tell us what they know about the history of their city,” Fuentes said. “We (got) to know New Orleans really well.”
Aside from introducing international students to the culture of New Orleans, the international program exposes local students to students from across the globe and provides the opportunity for international students to have an American education, according to Rowley.
“We know it’s not always easy for teenagers to make friends or approach one another, so (starting International Club) was a way to kind of provide a structured space for that,” Rowley said. “(It’s great that) our local students can learn about international students’ culture and vice versa.”
Kuehne agrees with Rowley; not only does the club help educate students, but it provides a way for international students to become comfortable and get involved at St. Martin’s.
“Because the STM community is so small, a lot of people don’t realize how hard it is to break into it,” Kuehne said. “Because we do have new international students every year, I think it’s important to make sure that they know that we are willing to accept them and take them in and that they’re genuine members of our community.”
International Club has helped Garo and other international students make friends and get involved, but a number of high school students are unaware of the club’s various benefits; it can potentially alter their perspectives of the world.
“One thing that we want for our students is global competence,” Rowley said. “By having an opportunity to meet, interact with, and be friends with people from other countries, it provides some of that perspective. You’re maybe more open to things or more adventurous or more willing to try different things, and that’s a really great skill for work and for life.”
So far, International Club has been successful in accomplishing their goal of cultural exchange, with the club officers taking the initiative to organize events and connect with international students, according to Rowley. McCollum is a committed member of International Club and feels like his time in the club has been worthwhile.
“I’ve gotten a much better appreciation for cultures around the world,” McCollum said. “I’ve gotten to eat a ton of really good food from all around the world, too, which is really great.”
One small club, started just last year, has already impacted the lives of many international and local students, and its influence expands every time new members join. International Club reflects the St. Martin’s community’s emphasis on the acceptance of all cultures and encourages students to explore the complex diversities of our world.
“I think it educates whoever is in the club because the sharing of cultures and learning about different people is really helpful for keeping an open mind,” Bruss said. “We live in a world, not a country.”