As this strange spring semester wound down, language faculty member Andrea Villagran found herself wondering about high school seniors—not just those at Rivers, or even those across the U.S., but students in this cohort around the world.
Much has been said and written about what these young people have lost, from prom to senior week to graduation. Villagran, a teacher in the trenches, was a witness to much of that, and it gave her an idea. “I think it came from the disappointment my advisees and seniors were feeling about the little things they’re not able to do,” she says, quickly adding, “ ‘Little’ from my perspective, but from theirs, they’ve been waiting for this their whole high school career.”
The idea was a simple one, both inspired and driven by current conditions. Why not bring together high school seniors around the globe, via Zoom, to connect, to commiserate, and perhaps to gain perspective? Villagran approached the Rivers administration, and the project was quickly greenlighted.
Next came the challenge of lining up the participants. Villagran, a native of Guatemala who oversees Rivers’s travel programs, worked her connections, reaching out to anyone she could think of who might provide a way to enlist high-schoolers overseas. The project, dubbed Seniors Across Borders, was held over three separate sessions, eventually including students from Guatemala, Panama, Slovakia, and France. A large number of participants came from the Lycée Georges Duby in Aix-en-Provence, which has been part of an exchange program with Rivers for many years.
In one recent session, the French and American participants shared what they’ve been doing with the extra time they have on their hands. On both sides of the ocean, working out, watching TV, and goofing off were popular choices. “I’ve practiced guitar,” said French student Mark. “And I’m always procrastinating.”
Rivers seniors who joined in said later that they were happy to make the connections. Ryan Johnsen ’20 says he was interested in participating because he had taken part in the French exchange program in 2017. “My passion for French and general interest in the country motivated me to learn more about what my peers across the world were experiencing,” says Johnsen. The session gave him some insight into the universality of his plight: “I learned that although we come from different parts of the globe, we are experiencing the same disappointments and hardships that anyone our age would, such as missing out on the last year of high school, potentially missing parts of college, and feeling isolated.”
Rylee Glennon ’20 says, “When Señora Villagran spoke about the event in class, it sounded really interesting—and it was. It was very cool just to be able to talk to people from all over the globe, especially students our age. We got to talk about our lives and the difficult situation we are all dealing with and how we were all nervous for what the future would lead to.” But it wasn’t all weighty, she emphasized: “We also just got to talk about different popular Netflix shows around the world and our different hobbies and interests. It was a great experience to bring some reassurance and hope that the world can make it through the pandemic, and it was also a great way to take our minds off everything that’s happening by just being to talk and meet new people.”
Some longer-lasting good may come out of the program, as well. As Villagran worked with teachers at the French school, they realized that they could take advantage of the now-familiar Zoom platform to connect their students even after the pandemic passes. “This could be a valuable resource for both sets of kids, so we’re looking to talk more about how to make this a year-long project,” says Villagran. “That’s the exciting part: The possibilities just become larger.”
For now, though, the program allowed students to gain a global perspective that seems especially valuable in this moment. Says Johnsen, “I think it’s important to connect with students in other countries because it allows us to realize that people on a whole different continent are sharing the same struggles as us.”