Nativity School's exchange programs connect young students with the world

Forget the books; grab your passport

CINCINNATI -- Nativity School students aren’t just learning about foreign countries and cultures.

They’re living them.

Each year, students from the Pleasant Ridge Catholic school’s fifth through eighth grades can choose to travel abroad for two weeks and, in turn, host visiting exchange students. Next month, a group of five seventh- and eighth-graders, along with their chaperones, will embark on the long plane ride to China to spend time living with the families of children their age, attending school and visiting the area. Eleven fifth- and sixth-graders will similarly journey to France for their exchange at a local school. Those students will host the Chinese and French students in Cincinnati in April.

For more than 35 years, students at the Pleasant Ridge school have gained a global perspective to their education through the school’s extensive international exchange program.

“The goals are to give our kids a positive global perspective, a global understanding, a global tolerance and, for other kids from other countries, a chance to come to a typical American town,” said Chris Shisler, Nativity’s principal. “This is a good opportunity for kids visiting with us to truly see what the American culture is about.”

Since 1980, Nativity – which serves kindergarten through eighth grade – has connected with schools in 22 countries including Ukraine, Finland, Mexico, Malaysia, Hungary and Australia, with the hope of adding a Middle Eastern country to the mix in the future. Nativity has linked with schools through Cincinnati’s sister cities projects as well as the International School-to-School Experience.

“It gives our kids an opportunity to learn about cultures, not only through travel but also as host,” Shisler said. “You really learn a lot about the culture when staying in a home with a family versus traveling on vacation and staying in a hotel. They are learning the culture through food and how people live, how they interact, what they do in their spare time and what the kids like to do at their age. It’s truly a cultural exchange.”

The school’s global reach goes beyond the student exchanges. Nativity offers Spanish and Chinese language classes and places an emphasis on educating students in world geography and global events. The school will also host a “Friendship Journey” for the third time next school year. That program invites students from four or five countries to come to Cincinnati simultaneously for a week-long, project-based international cultural experience. When international students visit Cincinnati, they visit every classroom at least once to extend the global experience to even its youngest children.

Most trips have gone off without a hitch, with the exception of one trip to Ukraine when one student underwent an emergency appendectomy and another suffered a burst ear drum, said Bob Herring, former principal who retired in 2015 after 31 years at Nativity. Those stories had happy endings, however, after the children received the medical care they needed.

When many schools opted to forgo foreign travel following the attacks of 9/11, the Nativity community was determined to continue – with contingency plans in place in case international travel restrictions trapped them abroad, Herring said. The group made the trip that year – to Germany – without incident.

“In their memory bank, the kids have something other than headlines or stereotypes of images from television or movies, or whatever the neighbor down the street said. Now it is something that they have experienced,” Herring said.

The program has offered the students a new level of global awareness and some lifelong friendships, Herring added.

“It’s just a wonderful opportunity for the kids to go beyond their neighborhood, city and state and get connected to the world,” he said.

Pleasant Ridge eighth-graders Molly Munn and Kevin Lake both traveled to Germany as seventh-graders and have each hosted German and Polish students in their homes.

“It surprised me how nice all the kids were, because I was expecting them to treat us like outsiders,” Munn said of her trip to Germany.

Both students said they were sad to leave their new friends when it was time to depart Germany, but the impact of their experiences remain.

“I sometimes would look at people and judge them before I even get to know them, and this has really taught me not to go and judge people,” Lake said. “People all around are really the same.”

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