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So Much Out There to Learn: Brigitte Savard’s French Exchange Program

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Grace Hall, right, and her pen pal/host sister Lynn Bourgouin, left, enjoy crepes bought from a local crepe cart at a park in Angers, France. Photo by Candide Guerineau.
One week after Emmanuel Abatan arrived in Montpelier, she saw snow fall for the first time. She had arrived here along with her friend Abygael Escarpe from Guadeloupe, a French-speaking archipelago about 2,000 miles away from the capital of Vermont. The two young women are part of a French exchange program established (after much preparation) by Montpelier High School teacher Brigitte Savard in 2023.

This year, five Montpelier High School students travelled abroad. They were assigned host families, and then the MHS students began exchanging letters with French-speaking peers. In February, the five left Vermont for one month. Camille Edgar and Veda Gahagan headed to Guadeloupe. Tully Dubé, Molly McCall, and Grace Hall went to France.

The Gaudeloupeans arrived here on March 31. In mid-April, the group from Angers will be welcomed by their host families. 

Montpelier High School has had travel exchanges in the past, and Savard wanted to bring it back for her French students.

“Travel shapes our youths, letting them step out of their own culture,” she said. “It’s a vital part of peace building.” 

In order to “step out of their own culture,” all students in the program stay with their pen pal families, attend the schools there, and get to know how life is lived in the country as they strengthen language skills. This is not a spring break kind of trip. 

To take part, students must have taken French 3 or 4. Financial aid is available to help families cover the cost if needed, but all Montpelier teenagers who participate must work on the Crêpe Cart, a crowd pleaser at the Capital City Farmers Market and a major fundraiser for the program. 

The two young women from Guadeloupe have been here only a short time, but they’ve observed distinct differences (aside from the weather) between their home on the island of Marie-Galante and the U.S.

“Things are bigger,” says Abygael as she stretches her arms wide. “Buildings are bigger. Trees are bigger. Everything’s bigger!”

She enjoys the “freedom” of Montpelier High School. “I can eat in class. I can drink in class. I can wear these.” she says, gesturing toward her sweatpants. Abygael smiles when she talks about her host family. “We play games together … There was a dance party.” She laughs. “A lot of people in the house.” 

Montpelier High student Camille Edgar stayed at Abygael’s home when she visited Guadeloupe. “They were so kind. We went camping and hiking. We climbed a small mountain … oh, and, yeah, there were a lot of mosquitos.”

The school in Guadeloupe, however, took a little getting used to. It was open to the elements and birds could fly in. 

“It was like being outdoors,” says Camille. Abygael adds, “Most students go to school from 7:00 in the morning until 5:00 at night. If you are more than five minutes late, they write your name down.” There is, however, a long break for lunch in the middle of the day.

What about homework? “Four hours a night,” says Emmanuel. “We have homework on weekends, too.” She does find time for socializing. “It’s just a question of organization,” she says without resentment. 

Tully Dubé, Molly McCall, and Grace Hall stayed with their host families in Angers, a city about 200 miles from Paris. The school was private and very formal. Grace laughs when she talks about her first day in class. 

“I went in and sat down and the kids said, ‘Get up. Get up …’ You were supposed to stand at your desk until the teacher came into the room and told you to sit down. They (the teachers) were nice, but there wasn’t much of a personal connection.” 

Angers has several historical sites and many cafes. Tully liked the freedom of life outside of school hours. “When we weren’t in class, we could go … wherever we wanted.” 

Grace remembers the student lounge, another option for free time. “There were board games, a coffee machine, and you could make hot chocolate.” 

Tully was impressed with the French cuisine. “The food was great and every meal was different.” He also liked the French way of gathering around the dinner table at the end of the day. “People stay at the table to talk. Sometimes the meal went on for three hours. It was time to connect with people. We (Americans) are so rushed.” 

Grace also felt the French are more conscious of the environment. “You use less water and take less time for showers …. The sinks are smaller, the washing machines are smaller … You hang your clothes on the drying frame. They don’t use dryers … and the cars are much smaller.”

The group seems eager to talk about all they’ve discovered, and Camille’s eyes light up when she shares her most meaningful discoveries. 

”People were so warm …. and open … I gained a better understanding of … what’s important … There’s so much out there to learn.”

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