SOE News

Middle school students visit Belgium, France

The 29 Smith Middle School students traveling abroad in Belgium and France are scheduled to arrive home today from their 10-day trip abroad.

But when trip chaperone and French teacher Robin McMahon appeared to her non-traveling students via teleconference Friday, she joked that the return date still was up for a vote.

The trip is funded by a grant from the European Commission that aims to teach American students about the European Union.

McMahon is one of nine national grant recipients and the only recipient from North Carolina.

"This was always an important part of her vision," said Jennifer Waldrup, a student teacher whom McMahon mentors. "She would say, 'I do not want to see students just learning through a window.'"

The students and chaperones shared their hands-on experience Friday with classmates and parents in Chapel Hill. They appeared on two flat-screen televisions in a room of the Carolina Center for Educational Excellence, a facility attached to Smith that was built by the University.

The students used their French knowledge to talk about their experiences at home and abroad.

Aiden Kell, a traveling student, said the group had observed the implications of the EU and its policies.

"One thing I noticed is that we did not have to show our passports when we crossed the border at France and Belgium," he said.

Violet Zhu, a student on the trip, told her classmates at Smith that she had learned about the EU at the European Commission and the European Parliament.

"They told us what member countries were in there and why they joined and why some countries aren't part of it, like Switzerland, because they already have such a good economy," Zhu said.

The group spent the first three days of their trip in France before moving to Belgium where they stayed with host families.

Student Paul Noah said he encountered more than just Belgian culture when he moved into a Vietnamese home in Liege, Belgium.

"I'm an American going to Belgium to speak to a Vietnamese family in French," he said.

Shon Jones said the group had been welcomed by their host schools and families.

"When they see me, they keep saying, 'It's Tupac, it's Tupac,' and I say, 'It's not Tupac, he's dead,'" Jones said. "As Americans, we are so popular here."

At least 10 of the traveling students are being sponsored by the grant money, Waldrup said.

"Certain funds were allocated for taking needy children who wouldn't ever have the opportunity to go there," she said.

Waldrup said those seeking funding had to apply and give indication of household income. Partial and full scholarships were given.

Although the students have missed six school days, the trip is not a vacation from academic work.

The students have been visiting Belgian schools and attending classes, Smith student Morgan Grobin said.

"We went to a lot of presentations," she said. "One was at the school where four seniors showed us a PowerPoint. … It was all in French so it was a little harder to understand."

Waldrup said the students have been keeping travel journals and will return to classes Tuesday to share with their classmates in person.

Katri Thiele, a student on the trip, noticed one thing in particular to write about the students in Belgian schools.

"They are always talking, and there are a lot of cute guys."