The Program of a Lifetime

How the French Exchange Program Came to Be


Sara Hughes and Ashley Comeau, Writers

For the past two and a half years, Ipswich High School has had a number of students host a French student for the French Exchange Program.  It is an amazing arrangement dedicated to providing linguistic opportunities, creating lifetime connections, and teaching tolerance and understanding to the kids of Ipswich, Massachusetts. You might be wondering, who is the wonderful genius behind the whole idea? The man is named Alexander Craven.

Monsieur Craven is the French teacher at the high school.  Ever since he first started working here, it has been a dream of his to give the IHS students a closer look into French culture.  What better way to explore than to have French students attend Ipswich High for a week? The idea of the exchange program has been around ever since Monsieur Craven started teaching, but formally accumulated around November of 2015.  When he was growing up he was in a french immersion program and exclusively spoke French in school all day; he absolutely hated it. It was not until he attended a summer camp at the age of 14 where he finally realized why he had been speaking French all this time.  He met some French campers who needed help understanding some of the activities and was able to act as a translator for them. He learned how to apply his language skills to the real world and was able to create new friendships, “This wasn’t anything you can find in a text book or in a video in class. This was the real world and the real world speaks French!” He later explained he wanted to offer IHS students the same kind of experience.

Monsieur Craven truly believes that, “student success in a subject greatly depends on motivation and this is the ultimate motivation. There is no greater motivation for a student to learn a language than to connect with native people!” Languages are meant to bring people together and that was a major influence on Monsieur Craven. When we asked him about what he gets out of the exchange program, his answer was more than humbling. He expressed that he gets to see the students of IHS grow and “learn more French in a week than they would while spending a year in his classroom.” He went on saying, “the amount of progress in language skills, cultural understanding, and general travel skills that students gain by traveling to France in a direct exchange program is incredible.  We do not spoon feed our students anything. This program is tough.”

Despite being a difficult program for not only the students and Monsieur Craven, they benefit so much just from the experience. He went on to say, “By inviting strangers into our homes all those small acts of kindness that do exist in our country are now shown to the international community. We are able to represent our own country as ambassadors through our interactions and that is more powerful than second hand exposure. We hope the French students can see the side of America that is not in the news or media through our small town.” Monsieur Craven told us his thoughts on the matter by saying, “Our international reputation has been tarnished because of the climate in our government and these toxic aspects of our culture and society are broadcasted across the world.  But we do not broadcast the simple generosity and kindness of the everyday American that lives in a town like Ipswich, MA.” He hopes that the students will learn to accept others for being different and celebrate the diversity that they encounter during the exchange.

This program is the best linguistic program our school offers. The students arrive on a Friday and will be participating in small field trips every other day that involve the local community.  We have a scavenger hunt in downtown Ipswich, a tour of the Ipswich Museum, a trip to the Marini Corn Maze, a tour of the Crane Estate, a farewell Lunch at Crane Estate, and a big tour of Boston one day over the weekend. The students are integrated into our classes and attend sports competitions as well as clubs so they can get the ultimate experience. Although, Monsieur Craven can vouch for its difficulty financially. The program is tough for Monsieur Craven as well. The high school does not fund the program, and he pays for his own ticket every year. Although, he emphasizes that “our exchange program is better than anything offered by EF or Explorica.”  He is diligently working overtime for the school by running this program but he told us, “the amazing connections made obviously makes up for it.” Not only does it benefit us but it also helps the French student a great deal. For the future he stated, “I see this continuing to be a yearly program between our schools that eventually will be sending our IHS French students to the French Riviera for $500.00. If we can do that then we would have made international travel and excellent world language and culture education financially accessible.”

While the French students were here with us at IHS, I talked to three girls, Audrey, Marie, and Chloé. I asked them a few questions regarding their experience. The students were all part of the same English class in Hyères, France. The girls said they wanted to improve their English. It was clear to me they knew a great deal of English but there was room for improvement. One of the girls stated how English had a lot of slang mixed in and it was hard to understand it all. They were excited to travel of course but also meet new friends as well. Since this is only a 10 day long program it is hard to fully immerse yourself in such a short period of time.

They told me,“Ïn the family we only speak English so we learn more but in school there are other French students so we can speak French.” The girls each stayed with different families and really got to see firsthand what an American family was like. When our IHS students depart for France, it is the same set up. Chlóe was particularly shocked by the portion sizes. She told me that the food was delicious but it was so big she could not finish it all. They described the schedule in our school to be “so different” than theirs. The teachers, as they described, were “less strict and more casual.”

I asked for feedback regarding the program as a whole. They were nearing the end of their stay so it was now or never to ask. They all expressed great interest in visiting New York City, but also spend less days at school and see more. They were angry with our lunch system because it was apparently was too short but we laughed it off. The program is only about 3 years old so there is definitely room for improvement. They were so glad to be apart of it and are immensely grateful to Monsieur Craven and the French teachers from Hyeres who helped make this possible. As are we, the students who get to welcome them and learn French from them. In the end, it is truly beneficial to both sides of the language gap.

Both IHS and Hyères students have the opportunity of a lifetime with the program that Monsieur Craven and his French colleagues created. They can create life long connections and learn the importance of friendship, tolerance, and understanding. Having personally known students who have returned back to France, Monsieur Craven is delighted to share that “after three years we have already had over a dozen students meet up with former program participants.”  He also went on to state that, “If there is any sign of success it is the hugs given and tears shed by students and staff alike while saying goodbye hopping on the bus for the airport. It’s a sign of real human connection in a world that needs more friendship and understanding.” So what’s the catch? You need to want it. Lastly, Monsieur Craven told us, “This program only works when tough, motivated students sign up and are ready to deal with the challenges of linguistic immersion and culture shock.”  Together we are bridging gaps and stereotypes between two countries one small community at a time.