The Center for Leadership at St. Luke's School in New Canaan has many opportunities to prepare students for success in a global context. Students chat with peers around the world via teleconferencing. Alumni return to guest lecture about sustainable architecture in China. Teachers go out into the world and return with stories and strategies. But inviting six South African students into their classes, their homes and their hearts offered the SLS community more than just a chance to learn about another culture. It offered a chance to grow.
Susan and David Ballard of Darien were among the SLS families that opened their homes. Their children Paige and Craig both attend SLS. Their son J.D. graduated from SLS last year and attends Middlebury College.
The six student visitors represented the best of the best of the Student Sponsorship Programme. SSP is in its second decade of identifying top scholars in low-income families and placing them in the best private high schools in South Africa. Like SLS, SSP seeks to turn its distinguished learners into leaders. Learning more about other cultures is a top priority.
Peter Goettler, of New Canaan, an SLS trustee and host parent, initiated the visit.
"My own view is it gives our students great perspective when they become intimately acquainted with students from countries where the level of economic development cannot be taken for granted, and where so many of the blessings with which we are familiar are more tenuous," he said. "And what a great lesson when they see that these visitors are unspeakably proud of their country and culture!"
For their part, scholars were keen to "showcase what it truly means to be South African." Their poise, passion and commitment shone through formal presentations and events, as well as informal get-togethers. Topics ranged from the serious to the playful: Apartheid and its part in South African history, tribal culture, clicking languages and gum boot dancing, a century-old tradition that began with miners in Johannesburg.
Persuasive communications -- the ability to present oneself and one's story in a range of settings -- is a cornerstone skill for the Center for Leadership. Observing the grace SSP visitors showed in classrooms and living rooms so far from home was an eye-opener. Beth Yavenditti, SLS director of global education, believes the visit will raise the bar for the center's emphasis on presentation skills.
Both SLS and SSP students learned about how things here are done a little differently.
"The first thing I appreciated when I was invited to attend one of the classes was the fact that I was in the same room with females in a classroom for the first time in four years," South African scholar Alex Menu said. "The second thing I noticed was that their student-teacher relationship has a strong bond. My school is very different in this regard in a sense that my school is very formal and we have a monarchy system set in place."
But some things are just the same.
Susan Ballard, whose son Craig hosted Alex, said that after dinner on the first night, the kids disappeared. She went to investigate and discovered and there was "a rousing game of soccer going on in the driveway under the lights. They had set up teams and were all in bare feet playing with more exuberance than I've ever seen in my yard among any group of kids. There were screams and laughter and they all played until they were utterly exhausted."
Another visitor, Moretgei Kale, enjoyed his stay.
"I very seldom felt like I was far from home," he said.