February 11, 2019

In an ongoing Spiral SCOOP series, “In Their Own Words”, Spiral partners describe their experiences and how those experiences have affected their lives.

This month, Bellows Free Academy’s Sara Villeneuve discusses her experiences as a Spiral host family, Summer Camp Coordinator and Coordinator Trainer, long-term exchange Student Services Coordinator, and student group travel leader in China. For further information on these or any other Spiral programs and how to bring them to your schools and communities, please contact us at any time.

Sara Villeneuve is a high school Language Arts teacher at Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax, Vermont.  Her 20 years as an educator have given her a variety of experiences including working with both middle and high school students.  Sara’s first involvement with Spiral International was as a host family for two students during BFA Fairfax’s 2014 Summer Cultural Immersion Program.  Her family enjoyed hosting two teenage girls from Chongqing. The following school year, due to a change in staffing, the summer cultural immersion program was nearly cancelled.  Because Sara and her family had such a positive experience as a host family, she didn’t want to see the program end. As a result Sara took on the site coordinator’s position at BFA and enlisted her friend and colleague Emily Cogan Nieckarz to co-teach with her that summer.   

Hosting the summer programs has become more than just a two-week camp at BFA, it has become a yearly celebration of cross-cultural learning.  Villeneuve and Cogan Nieckarz built a program which empowered their high school students to be the classroom teachers and lead the academic portion of each day.  With 10-15 student volunteers partnering with the 30 Chinese guests, there is intense engagement by all parties involved. Students learn about each other’s geography, politics, economics and culture through daily learning activities, field trips, and interactive activities.  The community comes together to welcome and host the Chinese guests by not only opening their homes as host families, but also involving them in public events such as local outdoor concerts, open gyms, library programing, and town sporting activities.

Villeneuve also reflects on how involved her own family is in the summer program.  “My children love being a part of the daily summer learning. They help me in all of the preparations. I really couldn’t do it without my daughter Anna- she remembers who every student is staying with, what the agenda is for every day, and even who is preparing snacks.  My husband keeps the show running and even my father hosts a yearly pool party for all of the Chinese students, American Peer Ambassador students, and the host families. It truly is a family effort.”

Sara’s involvement in Spiral International continued to grow as she worked to help train other new site coordinators with Michele Tofel Murray.  The opportunity to help other schools in Vermont launch summer immersion programs was exciting for Villeneuve. She was happy to reach out and support planning, host families recruitment, and other logistical areas.  “The chance to help programs in neighboring towns was so exciting! I got to work with colleagues to build their programs and in turn I got great ideas to grow our own.”

In the spring of 2018, Sara’s superintendent, Ned Kirsch, reached out to Spiral about the opportunity to send BFA Fairfax students to China to promote international education.  Spiral arranged an invitation for BFA Fairfax to bring 8 students and 2 teachers to visit three cities that October. Villeneuve and Cogan Nieckarz spent 9 days traveling with students, visiting schools, sight seeing, and reuniting with students who had just visited their school the summer before from Chongqing.  Villeneuve reflects that the experience of traveling to China was a profound learning experience for her, her colleague, and her students. “Having the opportunity to see the beautiful cities the summer students are from, immerse ourselves in their culture, and be a part of their schools even for a short time was transformative. It changed our entire perspective about the importance of our own program.  We saw first hand how much we could learn from each other, and just how similar, and different, our two cultures are.”

sara villenueve bfa fairfax china exchangesFollowing their trip, the Bellows Free Academy/FWSU administrative team visited schools in China as well and signed Memorandums of Understanding to form long-term partnerships with several Chinese schools.  Quickly after their return, three students from Guangzhou applied to study at Bellows Free Academy Fairfax. Villeneuve and Cogan Nieckarz were happy to take on the role of site coordinators for these three students as they spend 6 months studying in Vermont.  “Hosting students for an entire semester is a whole new level of our cultural programming at BFA Fairfax. Other teachers are very excited to look at ways to bring more students to Vermont. Our French teacher now has 12 students coming for two weeks and then her students will travel there.  The excitement from the opportunities seems to be contagious.”

Villeneuve is excited for new opportunities still to come.  Sara’s biggest hope is that the students, families, and communities which are involved in any of Spiral International’s programming (or any international cultural exchange programming) can learn from each other and see just how interconnected we are as human beings.   

“International exchanges help people learn about acceptance and how we must all exist as one world community.  Whether it’s the two week summer program, the whirl-wind trip to China, or our 6 month exchange students, the connections we make are life-long and empowering.”