BELLWOOD - Bellwood-Antis High School students are learning they are different from students in Mexico but also very similar.
Bellwood-Antis English classes and Mexican Spanish classes met up with each other in early October by Skype as part of an international exchange program through the Penn State Office of Global Relations and Guanajuato University.
"Although shy at first, the students soon were interacting like typical teens. A goal of everyone was to reveal to all groups that although there are obvious differences in our countries, cultures and educational structures, there are actually many similarities," said Diane Williams, retired high school principal. "We are close neighbors and both can benefit by a mutual cooperative relationship."
Williams, instructional technology coach Jamie Forshey, art teacher Leah McNaul and biology teacher Denise Shimel, made the trip to Guanajuato Oct. 3 to 13.
"The goal of the program is to help expand the knowledge of students in terms of cultural, social, economic and political relationships that we have with our neighbors to the south," said Samuel Hayes Jr., former state representative and agriculture secretary who serves as volunteer facilitator and coordinator of the program.
Hayes approached Superintendent Brian Toth last year about participating in the program and he was receptive to the offer.
"Bellwood-Antis was in my legislative district; I always had a good relationship with Bellwood. I know Brian Toth is a very forward-thinking superintendent and always looking for enrichment programs for his teachers and students," Hayes said.
The Bellwood-Antis group visited many classes and got involved teaching with the classroom teachers.
"Depending on what the lesson was, we basically just helped them with pronunciation and explanations. Students and staff were extremely receptive and welcoming; we were treated like royalty," William said. "They are a very proud culture and are very interested in learning English."
The group also worked on a Web page to provide a permanent link to Bellwood-Antis and created a video about the Salvatierra Prepa [high school]. "They will use it as a public relations tool for them. We showed teachers how to use the technology and equipment," Forshey said.
Another goal of the program is to promote a better global relationship and break down barriers.
"Mexico is not the place portrayed on the news and we want to change that perception here. It is not all drugs, immigration problems and gangs," Forshey said. "I saw a different side of Mexico the rest of the world should know. We brought knowledge back to Bellwood and want to tell the community, it is not the place it is portrayed to be."
Shimel said she will have the opportunity to help dispel some of the myths and stereotypes that students here may have about those students from Mexico.
"I can hopefully help our students to become more motivated to interact and connect with the students from Salvatierra so that they may begin to see that the world truly is flat, een though many miles separate them from each other, that there are strong bonds that can be formed and that there are not so many differences between 'us' as a people," Shimel said.
Participation in the program should help Bellwood-Antis students.
"I hope that my students acquire an appreciation for cultural differences. I think by sharing what I have experienced, the students and faculty at Bellwood-Antis will see cultural differences as something to embrace and grow from instead of something to eliminate or melt down into this idea of a dreadful melting pot," McNaul said.
"The experiences we had we can share with them and broaden their horizons and the thinking about our neighbors to the south," Forshey said. "In the 21st century, it is really good for students to experience other cultures and countries and our teachers can share these experiences."
Shimel called the trip a rewarding experience.
"It was a complete pleasure to go to another country to learn more about the people and their culture firsthand. Never have I felt so appreciated and welcomed as I did when visiting the state of Guanajuato," Shimel said. "Everyone that we encountered seemed to be overjoyed to share their time and experiences with us."
Discussions are under way to arrange a trip that would include a group from Guanajuato to visit Bellwood in winter or spring.
"Hopefully, we will have an opportunity to return the generosity and kindness that we were shown by our hosts and hostesses," Williams said.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.