by Garrett Heaney
MONTPELIER — At the beginning of the school year, my friend Elijah Coolidge, a senior at Montpelier High School, told me that his Ultimate Frisbee coach, Anne Watson, was taking the year off from teaching physics in order to help develop the international exchange program at Montpelier High School. I wanted to touch base with her to see how things were coming along around the new year, but alas, Watson had flown off to Thailand as part of her efforts to promote the high school and reach out to students and administrators there. When she got back last week, we did a short interview, and I was able to make contact with with some exchange students (current and past) who either went abroad or came to Montpelier as part of the various exchange programs.
If you’re a student interested in traveling abroad, or a local resident interested in being a host family, look for the contact information and website at the end of this interview. From the sound of it, Watson has been plenty busy since her decision to pursue this last year!
The Bridge: So, what made you decide to take the year off from teaching?
Anne Watson: This would be my 12th year of teaching. I still love physics and teaching and MHS, but I’m grateful for the break and the opportunity to do something entirely different. I have missed being in the classroom. I didn’t teach at all last semester, but I came in to school almost every day anyway, just to have a place to work that wasn’t my house. I also just missed the energetic hum of being around students. A lot of people have asked me if I’m still coaching ultimate this spring and the answer is decidedly yes. At this point I don’t anticipate that this work will take me away from school for any substantial length of time that late in the spring. Besides, I’m not truly on sabbatical, as I’m teaching one class, engineering, this spring.
The Bridge: You just got back from Thailand? Business or pleasure?
Watson: I was in Thailand with two fellow teachers and an administrator from Montpelier High School — Tom Sabo, Heather McLane and Michael Martin. We were there for work, but we definitely had some time to relax and explore the area. This trip was financed through a grant I received through the Rowland Foundation. My work with this grant is to look at bringing more international students to Montpelier High School to provide a more multicultural experience for our local students, which will be valuable in an increasingly diverse future.
The Bridge: So, tell me a little about the history of the international exchange program at Montpelier High School and how it is evolving?
Watson: As long as I have worked at Montpelier High School, there have always been a few international students through programs like AFS (American Field Service), CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange), the Rotary, and others. The international program seeks to expand the number of international students, but with a different kind of student visa. This means that these students would be tuitioning in as if Montpelier High School was a private school. This also means working with a new set of recruiting agencies.
The Bridge: How many schools have you reached out to? Do you have any existing relationships with schools abroad?
Watson: We were in Thailand looking for schools who might want to partner with us by advertising our school with their students. We visited seven schools, and all seven said that they wanted to either partner with us or pursue next steps in working with us, which is a little overwhelming. But it’s a good problem to have. It’s worth mentioning that we owe all of our connections with schools to people who have visited before us, but are connected to Vermont. Linda Wheatley used to take a trip to Thailand with students every year, and she was a great help in this process.
The Bridge: What are some of your biggest challenges right now?
Watson: At this point we have made quite a few contacts, some directly with international schools, some with recruiting agencies. So the next phase for us is to find host families, and we’re at the front edge of that process. I’m really thankful that The Bridge is covering this program right now because we’re just starting to reach out to Montpelier residents about hosting.
The Bridge: Are local families in the Montpelier community supportive/receptive?
Watson: I consistently hear positive feedback about the program. Montpelier is a very internationally-minded community that intends to welcome people from other cultures. With all of our international partners, we’re telling people right now that we’re intending to limit the number of international students to 10, because that’s how many host families we think we can find. In addition to regular host families, we’ll also need backup host families (in case a student needs to move entirely), respite host families (in case a student needs a temporary break) and August host families (in case we’re still looking for a host family right at the beginning of the year). So even if a family can’t commit to a whole year of hosting, we’d still love to hear from them about more temporary options.
The Bridge: I grew up in St. Johnsbury and graduated from the Academy there. I went to school with kids from all over the world and the cultural exposure taught me to appreciate and value diversity. I think there were students from like 40 different countries in the dorms when I graduated in the late 90s. How do you think the students in Montpelier are responding to the idea of having more international students around and the exchange programs in general?
Watson: I actually had a graduate from last year tell me that she was so excited about the program that if it was still running by the time she graduated from college, she wanted to come back just to work with this program specifically. But more generally, I think students’ reactions are closely tied to how interactive the international students are. Having said that, our local population of kids are responding really well. We’re learning that it may be useful to have some intentional structures in place to help facilitate interaction for those students who are more naturally shy.
The Bridge: Where can people reading this interview find information about the program and who might they contact should they have interest in being a host family?
Watson: If a family is interested in hosting a student (or two) from another country, they should get in touch with me, Anne Watson, at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will have more information specifically for host families available online at http://montpelierinternational.weebly.com/ under Admissions.
Garrett Heaney is the proofreader for The Bridge, a local artist (http://ahny.us) and slings health food at the Co-op.