French students spend their vacation at S.C. Catholic schools

GREENVILLE — Fifteen students from a Catholic school in France spent their winter vacation experiencing life across the pond. They came from St. Denis International School in Loche, near the Loire valley, to spend February attending Catholic schools in South Carolina.

“I wanted to come to see what was America, and to maybe come back for college,” said Victor Debordes, 16, an exchange student at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville.

That wish was the primary reason for arranging the student exchange for the first time, according to the school’s vice-headmistress, Viri Lashley.

“It benefits both our students and the French students by giving them a more global view,” Lashley said. “It’s good for our kids to interact with people their own age from a different culture.”

Exchange students from St. Denis have been coming to St. Mary Help of Christians School in Aiken for 15 years. Language teacher Christine Tezza coordinates the visits and agreed with Lashley’s assessment.

One benefit she has noticed over the years is that “students find out that they have more in common with children from Europe than they previously thought. It helps them become more accepting of people who are different in  some ways,” she said.

There is no cost to the host schools in the exchange program. Students raise their own travel money and stay with volunteer families. They also attend regular, if shortened, academic days at the host school for the four weeks of their visit.

Two of the boys at St. Joseph’s were in George B. Gabor’s algebra class, even though they are 16 and the regular pupils are advanced eighth-graders.

“So, it’s kind of a weird mix and there’s not a whole lot of social interaction,” Gabor said. “But they’re nice kids and very respectful.”

They know some algebra, Gabor said, but “they have a little trouble with the story problems, probably because of language issues.”

In Charlotte Dabbene’s French III class it was a different story. There the French students told about their school and their lives in their native tongue, helping the local students with their foreign language skills and cultural appreciation of France.

One spin-off of France’s secularization that may not have been as appreciated was the casual approach of the European to his or her ancient religion.

“We’re mostly Catholic and we all believe, but we do not go to church as regularly as you do,” said Fanny Herpin, chaperone.

Tezza acknowledged that attitude, but said the French students at St. Mary attended Mass with the local students at school and with their families, and were reverent and attentive. She also sees another potential benefit from the exchange.

“Might their experience with us be a positive influence on their faith lives? We hope so,” she said.

During their stay, the students from France also visited other places, such as Atlanta, Charleston and even Florida.

“My family took me to Daytona for the car race,” said Debordes, who stayed with Jim and Anna Blaso of Piedmont.

The students kept logs of their daily experiences. When asked what he wrote in his log about food in the new world, Nathan Moreau said diplomatically: “It was special [read different], but good.”

Mélodie Grousset, 15, said that the major differences for her were in the infrastructure.

“Your buildings and roads are much bigger,” she said.

Class days are also shorter here; at St. Denis the hours are from 8-5. The academic year is also broken up more in France.

“In our school, we are off for two weeks in October, two at Christmas, two in February, two at Easter and for two months in the summer,” said Isis Robin, 15.

Tezza hoped that the French students might help America’s image abroad once they returned home at the end of February.

“We tell our children when they are interacting with the exchange students that they should view it also as an opportunity to improve our reputation in Europe,” she said.

St. Mary hosted eight students, most in the eighth grade; St. Joseph’s hosted three in middle school and four in high school. Both S.C. schools have a standing invitation to return the visit during the early part of our summer vacation, when St. Denis is still in session.