From the US of A to Sydney
“My experience at St. Andrews has been better than anything I could have imagined before I started. Even as the “new kid”, I felt instantly welcomed and could feel the inclusive, friendly nature radiating off of the staff and students… I couldn’t be prouder to be able to say I attended St Andrews,” – Austin Vargo, Exchange student from Texas, USA.
Exchange programmes might be increasingly common in universities, but in secondary schools they remain a rarity. There are numerous long-term benefits of exchange for both the travelling student and the exchange family: a deeper understanding of alternate cultures and lifestyles, fresh perspectives, and for the exchange student particularly, a one-time chance to critically review their education against that of other institutions.
For five months this year, Texas student Austin Vargo lived with a family from St Andrew’s. She assumed their lifestyle, accustomed herself to their habits and attended the Senior College as an International Baccalaureate (IB) student. “One of the best things about the school was the mixture of students,” Austin wrote, in a thank you letter to St Andrew’s Registrar. “I made friends with kids from Surry Hills, Bronte, Willoughby, Sutherland, and many other places. That was something special for me because schools back home consist of students within a certain [residential] zone. This sampling of different locations helped me see different parts of Sydney outside of just Chatswood.”
It was after much consideration that the Simpson family decided that hosting a foreign student would be “a good way to extend our little family”, comprised of mother, father and son Jordan Simpson (Year 10). After researching several organisations, they decided on Student Exchange Australia as “they presented us with several student profiles from the countries of our choice.” Mr Andrew and Margaret Simpson explain that although there were ups and downs – as could be expected from temporarily opening up your family –the overall experience was reaffirming and one they’d recommend to others. “At a very basic level it made us all appreciate each other and the time we have together more. It taught us all how to care for and accept another person … [On top of that], Austin was extremely disciplined in doing her schoolwork and getting places on time, and Jordan absorbed a lot about that from her.”
Though she hadn’t cooked before she visited Australia, by the time Austin left she could prepare a whole meal and had made pasta by hand. She had also snorkelled at Shelley Beach, where she saw a five foot Wobbegong shark. One of the biggest changes she experienced however was bigger than the kitchen, even bigger than a trip to Sydney’s South. The shift in education was significant. Her school at home did not have uniforms, and while it took some adjusting, Austin admits she found it “refreshing” as “the competition between students to dress better than everyone else was totally eliminated.” For the first time, she was involved in school sport, physical activities run by specially trained staff.
The school size was another differentiator. As Austin explains, “My grade back home consisted of about 650 students, with class sizes of more than 30. The IB programme was extremely beneficial in this way. My largest class probably had about 17 students in it and the effect is obvious. More student-teacher interaction as well as a more orderly classroom made learning much easier here than in Texas.” Smaller class sizes also enabled Austin to experience greater care within the classroom, where teachers genuinely showed interest in her emotional wellbeing. As the course material was more difficult than Austin was used to, the heightened teacher/student interaction became crucial, alongside a newly developed homework regime (changes Margaret says that Austin “took in her stride”).
So what were Austin’s favourite new classroom experiences? “Theory of Knowledge and Creativity Action Service (CAS) were some of the most useful classes I have ever taken,” she shares. “[The subject] promotes questioning the world and employing philosophical skills to better perceive the world around us. CAS is a genius idea by the IB used to make sure the IB student is not only academically accomplished, but also a well-rounded person who can show creativity, athleticism, and compassion through helping others… Although the IB program is challenging, I feel as though you grow as a person instead of just expanding your knowledge.”
Though Jordan was one school year younger than Austin, he was still excited to share his learning space of over seven years with a new face. “For about the first two weeks Austin and I stuck together, just until she got used to the St Andrew’s lifestyle,” Jordan explains. “By the third or fourth week she had her own friend groups and was managing the school and the commute really well… It was a great honour to show off all of what St Andrew’s had to offer, especially since the school she is currently in – to my understanding – is not [as] accepting... I don’t think she could really comprehend that it didn’t matter where you came from, who your parents were, or what your background was, St Andrew’s students were always going to be friends to her and be there for her.”
Austin is now back with her family in Texas. When she has finished Year 12, she hopes to study Marketing at New York University. We wish her all the best and thank her for joining our school, even if just for a little while.
Words: Laura Bannister