International Teachers, News + People
A Cultural Exchange Adventure of a Lifetime
At Participate Learning, our highly qualified ambassador teachers travel from around the world to participate in meaningful cultural exchange in classrooms in the United States. These educators expand young minds and open the world to students by giving them authentic exposure to the world beyond their classroom walls and local communities. This work is at the heart of our mission to unite our world through global learning as our ambassador teachers guide students as they become empathetic, curious, and culturally competent global leaders.
Without a doubt, our ambassador teachers have a positive and lasting impact on their students and schools in the United States, but they also take with them from this experience a unique skill set, lifelong connections, and a story worth sharing. Read on to learn more about the story of Hélène and Gaëtan, French educators who started teaching with Participate Learning in the late 1990s and have yet to look back.
Ready for adventure
In 1998, Hélène and Gaëtan saw an ad in the hallway at their university in France that was advertising for cultural exchange teaching positions in South Carolina. They went to an informational meeting and were excited about the prospect of gaining experience teaching and with the English language, so they applied for yearlong placement at a school and were soon accepted. Knowing very little about the United States and having no expectations, they packed up their belongings and headed out, ready for an adventure.
When they first arrived in the States, they had a week-long orientation alongside other ambassador teachers from countries around the globe such as Panama, Chile, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, and Spain. They were thrilled to be surrounded by like-minded people who were going to teach while sharing their languages and cultures, and they looked forward to arriving in their school district in rural South Carolina.
Their time teaching in South Carolina was an extremely formative experience for them both as they learned to work in an unfamiliar district and school system, developed professionally, made connections with supportive colleagues, embraced change and new perspectives, and offered authentic cultural and linguistic exposure to their students. They loved every minute of this experience and extended their stay for a full three years under the J-1 visa.*
*Currently, teachers can apply for an extension for a fourth and fifth year of participation.
When reflecting on their initial leap of faith, Hélène remarked, “We set off in July 1998 thinking we will spend one school year there, nine months, and then we will see. To this day, we have yet to return home to France.”
Uniting our world
Through their time in South Carolina, Hélène and Gaëtan began to deeply value global education because they were able to witness firsthand the myriad of benefits not just for students but for teachers, schools, and local communities. After they finished their three years, they headed off to the UK to embark on a new adventure teaching in Kent, England.
While they loved their time across the pond, they were eager to get back to the United States to teach again with Participate Learning (formerly VIF)–although this time, as a family. They were newly married and expecting their first child, Nicolas. During their second stay, they were able to integrate into the culture more quickly, and they acted as mentors for incoming teachers by giving advice from their previous personal experiences. By the time their second term ended, they had had another child, Thomas, and were heading off to Nairobi, Kenya, to teach for six years.
Since then, they have remained on the international teaching circuit and have moved to take part in cultural exchange in many other countries, including Tanzania, Thailand, Ghana, and Indonesia, where they are currently living. They have loved being able to explore the world and immerse themselves in new cultures. Hélène and Gaëtan believe that their experience teaching in the United States for six years with Participate Learning was invaluable because it opened the doors to a life they never thought possible.
Not only have they been able to experience new cultures themselves, but their sons have had the unique opportunity to be educated around the world alongside peers from many different backgrounds. Hélène and Gaëtan feel that a global education has helped make their sons comfortable in a variety of settings, with the ability to communicate and connect with people from all walks of life. They have friends around the world that they keep in touch with.
Coming full circle
Despite the obvious surface-level differences in places, Hélène and Gaëtan have found more commonalities than differences with the people they meet. No matter the location, everyone wants the same things in life: the ability to meet their needs, live peacefully, access education, and chase their dreams. As they have built connections in each place, it has made it hard for them to set their heart on just one country to live in.
Today, while Hélène and Gaëtan continue teaching at Jakarta Intercultural School, their oldest son, Nicolas, is about to begin his first year of college after earning his International Baccalaureate diploma in Jakarta. He applied to a variety of colleges around the world but is going to begin attending Elon University in North Carolina starting this fall on a presidential scholarship.
While Nicolas was born in North Carolina, he hasn’t been back since he was three years old. Now, eighteen years later, he will return to study at a university that is thirty minutes from his birthplace. After years of exploring the world and building connections in many countries, his heart has remained set on North Carolina thanks to the impact that it had on the lives of his parents.
If Hélène and Gaëtan could give any advice to incoming ambassador teachers, they would encourage them to be open, embrace the newness, and explore their area so that they can build relationships and feel a sense of belonging to their U.S. communities. And who knows? Maybe Hélène and Gaëtan will make their way back to North Carolina one day, too.