Student Voices

Teachers and students learning together “in the field” is truly authentic education utilizing an effective apprentice-expert model of instruction. Please visit the pages / links below to discover the amazing impact this kind of instruction has on students who have participated in the Belgian exchange in the past (since 2001) and those who hope to learn about Europe in March 2013.

Former students – please click on the first link to leave your comments. Merci!

Voices of those who have participated in the Belgian Exchange in the past and describe the lasting impact on their experience

Voices of hopeful middle school students who would like to learn about Europe in March 2013

Enjoy this clip of students learning how to communicate across the seas . 7th graders are speaking with pen pals in Mulhouse, France; 8th graders are skyping with Sophie from Dijon and Lucie from Lyon while she was interning at bioMerieux.


Belgian students in North Carolina 2010  Video UNC TV 

10 Responses so far.

  1. The Belgian Exchange has impacted my life in such a way that I have seen what the real Europe actually is, and it is eye-opening

  2. sofia says:

    the exchange has made a huge difference for me. i have made friends that i would not have met any other way. my exchange student and i still talk to one another and this last birthday she sent me some Belgian chocolates and a belgian exchange shirt from that year. getting to know someone over seas has been an amazing experience.

  3. Hello unto everyone reading!

    I’m overjoyed to post about my belgian experience, as it was one of the most influential and blessed opportunities I’ve ever been allotted. Prior to my experience, I spent an enormous amount of time intricately studying French and latin alike too help enrich my growth in learning the language. When I received the opportunity to depart with Madame McMahon and a huge group of peers to Belgium and France, the experience was breath-taking. When I arrived, I met the MOST outstanding host family to reside on the face of the earth. They accomodated me beautifully and assured me that though I was away from home, I could remain worry-free because they’d take the utmost care of me. Their statement remained solid and trusted throughout my entire experience! They indeed took care of me. It felt as if I met an entire second family amongst my own. Their ability to watch over me took away every trembling nerve that I had within, and caused me to become closer and closer to my host family day after day. Much like other parents who would voluntarily allow their kids to depart on a 6+ hour flight away, my parents were worried. But when I spoke to my parents after I’d arrived in Belgium, my parents couldn’t have been more assured that I was enjoying myself, than to hear how excited I was to be partaking in such a joyous experience. Most of all, Madame McMahon and her firm faith and dedication, made it ALL happen for the groups before mine, during mine, and after mine to travel to Europe. She bonded with every single student aboard the trip and cared for us as if she were our mother. While abroad the trip, there were students who became ill due to nature’s natural atmospheric change. During various tours throughout Europe, she often remained behind to Nurse those who had become ill, while using her own hard-earned finances in assisting them with medicine and mother-like care! If there was one single term to describe her excellence as a teacher, a mentor, a mother, an endurer, a striver, and many more adjectives alike; the term would be phenomenal. But not only phenomenal, phenomenal to the tenth power. I love her! I thank you Mrs. McMahon. Almost an entire decade ago, you helped me fulfill a dream that millions long for, and billions aren’t given the opportunity for. Please consider the continuation of academic excellence in striving and providing opportunities for those who are determined to grow in French and experience cultures that have never been witnessed before their very own eyes! Thank You infinitely!

    With the kindest regards, I Remain!

    -Jurother A.

  4. Eva Archer says:

    I participated in the exchange in 2003 (hosting two Belgian students) and 2004 (traveling to France and Belgium) and chaperoned the 2007 trip to France and Belgium. I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012 with a degree in chemistry and international studies (with a focus in Western Europe), and I am about to embark on a joint US-UK PhD program in biomedical sciences between the National Institutes of Health and the University of Cambridge. During university I spent 4 months as an intern at the Curie Institute of Cancer Research in Paris, France, and on a separate occasion went back to Belgium for a week that included a visit to friends that I had made on the initial exchange.

    All this is to say two things: (1) I am a big fan of US-EU exchanges and the role they have/will play in my past, present, and future and (2) this all started with Robin McMahon and the exchange that she set up. The initial opportunity to travel, in late middle school and early high school, was exactly the right time to plant the seeds of inquiry and exploration. If you asked my pre-exchange self if she could see herself ten years later getting ready to move overseas, the younger version would be shocked. The impact of these exchanges, both personally and to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community (via the Global Connections week in November and other events throughout the year), is immense. This program opens doors to students and educates them about the social, political, and cultural ties between the US and EU and is the foundation for a lifetime exchange.

  5. admin says:

    July 27, 2012

    Dear Madame McMahon,

    I just wanted to thank you for the opportunity to travel overseas and explore a whole new culture first hand, not just through videos and textbooks. The Belgian Exchange trip was something I dreamed of doing long before I was a student at Smith and I am overwhelmed that I was selected to be a part of this life changing experience. My experience in France and Belgium changed my life in countless ways. It was such a rewarding two weeks of my life and I thought you might like to know some of the ways in which it did.
    The Belgian Exchange isn’t just a sign up, pay, and go type of program. On top of your indescribable efforts to make the Belgian Exchange an experience of a lifetime, the students have a lot to prove as well. Attending and helping with events at Smith Middle School like Global Connections, Europe Day, and video showings of the exchange from previous years were necessary to show our interest in the trip, as well as writing a letter of why we thought we deserved to go overseas. We had to stay after school every Thursday afternoon to learn all about the history, present, and future of the European Union. Learning information about WWII, the famous monuments, French and Belgian culture, and the language of course was crucial before taking off. It was very important that we stay in contact with our Belgian host family through letters, emails, and attending video conferences. Although a lot of time and dedication was put into going on this trip, it was definitely well worth it. It taught me to really put forth all my effort and stay dedicated for something that I really desire. Everything I learned about the European Union in those weekly meetings has also helped me a lot in my high school classes like World History and French.
    I will never forget the feeling I had when I woke up on the Saturday we were set to leave for France from RDU. It was the biggest mixture of excitement and nervousness knowing what was ahead of me for those next two weeks. We weren’t allowed to have any source of technology which was very different than what most of us teenagers were used to. The thought of not being able to talk to my family for two weeks was terrifying! I definitely benefited more from not having my cell phone and iPod with me because I really focused on the moment and what was happening. It made a huge difference in how I viewed the new culture I was being exposed to. I believe if I would have had the electronics I’m used to using daily in America I would have missed out on every detail of a once in a lifetime experience. This taught me that it is good to put away the electronics every now and then and just focus on enjoying the moment.
    Our first stop was Normandy. Being in Normandy was really emotional for a lot of the students because a lot of us had a relative that fought in WWII. Seeing the huge craters from the bombs being dropped was really mind blowing. One of the greatest memories I have of being there was running up and down the massive bomb craters. I could never fully understand how many soldiers lost their lives fighting for our country during WWII until we visited Colleville-Sur-Mer (the American Cemetery in Normandy). We read all of the crosses and were taken back when we realized some didn’t have names on them. It was heart wrenching to know that some soldiers that died were still unknown. I always had a lot of respect for the soldiers fighting for our country, but after seeing firsthand the cliffs the soldiers had to climb, the bombs they had to dodge, and the places they fought gave me a real sense of pride in our country and gave me an even greater respect for them.
    The anxiety of meeting our Belgian host family didn’t really quite hit me until about ten minutes before we got off the train in Liege. The first weekend was really difficult because it was just us and our host family. There was a huge culture shock for me that week, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Unfortunately, my family only had one person that spoke English (and just as much English as I spoke French), but we definitely managed to work through it. The language barrier could be frustrating at times but when I came back to America, French class was a piece of cake.
    I was one of the lucky ones who adored my host family, and I don’t think it would have been possible if you hadn’t prepared me so well. That week I learned so much about the European culture and how their daily routines work. When we visited the school, I learned that students stay standing until the teacher allows them to sit. I also learned that there are a lot of different ways that the students get to school. My pen pals routine of getting to school each morning consisted of her mother driving us to the bus stop, then riding the bus to the stop that was closest to the school, and lastly walking the rest of the way. Seeing how the Belgian households were very “green” and eco-friendly made me think of ways that my household can do that as well. My host family only had one car and rarely used the drier. They also made sure all electronics were unplugged when they weren’t being used. Visiting the famous monuments and being in France was definitely a dream come true, but nothing compared to that week in Liege. I benefited so much from it, like making new friendships in a foreign country and being able to take back all I learned to America.
    So much came out of the Belgian Exchange Program that it didn’t just stop once we came home. One of the most rewarding parts of the trip was the people we got to share the trip with. Not all of the students that came knew each other very well because most of us had different “friend groups”. All of the students bonded so much over the two weeks we were oversees. I made new friendships that are long lasting with people that can share the same memories from our experience. The other students and I used all we learned about Belgian and French culture to create our final research papers on sustainability and WWII. We also share our experiences at Europe Day and Global Connections. It is really rewarding to be a part of an experience that is so well-known in our community and unimaginable to some people.
    Even though it has been a little over a year since I went on the Belgian Exchange trip, it has still changed my life. Now that I am in High school, my main focus is French class, and I am planning on continuing to take French classes through college. It has also opened my eyes to the world and made me realize how interesting it is to learn about other cultures and languages. With that, I am planning on taking Spanish along with French in the fall. I hope to study abroad when I am in college and make a career out of multicultural studies. I still keep in contact with my host family and my pen pal is planning a trip to America to visit my family and me. I cannot thank you enough for the opportunity you gave me to travel to France and Belgium and have an experience of a lifetime. There was definitely nothing as rewarding as what I learned the friendships I made, the new culture I was exposed to, and the memories that will not be forgotten from my experience with the Belgian Exchange program.

    Melissa Turner

  6. Isabella Archer says:

    I participated in the Belgian/European Exchange program in 2003 (hosting Belgian students in North Carolina) and 2004 (traveling to Belgium, the Netherlands, and France). My experiences with this program have played a huge role in my personal, professional, and academic development over the years, and as such, I would like to share why the opportunities for international experiential education are so important for future participants.

    From the opportunity to practice French with native speakers to exploring European cultures abroad and explaining American culture to host students in NC, the exchange program was an opportunity to learn outside the traditional classroom in a real and meaningful way. Speaking French with native speakers at home and abroad builds confidence and experience that cannot be replicated in a textbook, and visiting the monuments and historical sites up close in person is an experience that connects students to the subject material and history in a more vivid, lasting learning experience. I would also like to emphasize the tremendous opportunity to both host foreign students and live with a host family and Belgium as particularly formative and rewarding experiences to get close to another culture and come away with lasting lessons and memories. (A quick aside: the positive experience I had staying with a host family in Belgium gave me the confidence to request staying with a host family in Morocco a few years later during a study abroad experience in college!) I’m also happy to share that I have stayed friends with the Belgians I met in 2003 & 2004, visiting friends from Liege in 2009 and 2011, and hosting them in the United States over the years.

    This exchange program was my first foray into foreign language and cultural exchange, but, years later, it turns out it was only the beginning! In the years since the Belgian/European exchange program, I went on to study French and International studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I received my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. During my time at UNC, I studied abroad and conducted research in French and Francophone countries, conducted outreach presentations about French-speaking cultures to local elementary schools through UNC’s Carolina Navigators Program, and taught French for two years as a graduate student. This fall, I will embark on a different type of exchange: moving to France to teach English in Paris!

    A heartfelt MERCI to Mme. McMahon for the opportunity to first whet my appetite for international travel and cultural exchange! This program is one of the most valuable Smith Middle School has to offer its students and it is my hope that next year’s participants will learn and grow from this amazing opportunity.

  7. Timofey Karginov says:

    In 2009, I traveled with Madame McMahon and 30 other students to France and Belgium. Now as a senior at Chapel Hill High School, I am three years removed from the experience, but am still touched by the time spent and memories. I am honored to have had Madame McMahon as a teacher who has helped her students discover a new part of themselves through the Belgian Exchange Program.
    Every student is nervous when they must speak in a different language for a whole week. English is seldom used during the trip, but communication is key to a great stay. So, as for all of us, I was mentally forced to use French at all times, whether it be with my host, adults, or classmates. The mistakes I made were – at times – embarrassing, but it became the every day communication that drove my awe with the language. Currently finished with all levels of French at Chapel Hill High School, I am pursuing my studies of French in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and am considering a Minor in the romance language.
    Although the trip took us both to France and Belgium, I was able to form a lasting connection with many of the people I encountered. My fellow classmates were just as eager and interested as I was, and I am still attached to several of them. At times we recall the emotional moments on the beaches of Normandy or the jubilant streets of Paris, where we saw the true colors of France. Belgium, however, exposed us to an unforgettable bond. My trip connected me to a new culture that included history, tradition, and unforgettable places; caverns, hills, rivers, and architectural wonders added to the already incredible trip. The desire to communicate in any way drove my host and me together, and tied his amazing family with mine. The care, the compassion, and the understanding that his family gave me still sticks with me, as does his Facebook and email. I am still in contact with my host, and hope to return someday.
    Il y a millions d’élèves autour des États-Unis qui espère pour une exp érience qui peux change leur vie. Mais cette exp érience n’est pas possible sans quelqu’un qui croit en les liens, la langue, et l’amour. Madame McMahon est cette personne. J’espère que chaque étudiant qui apprend le français avec Madame McMahon peux réalise les liens du monde, comme j’ai fait dans ma exp érience il y a trois ans.

  8. Williams says:

    Really liked what you had to say in your post, Student Voices | Getting To Know Europe., thanks for the good read!
    — Williams

  9. Adriana Lorenzini says:

    I am so excited. I have been hearing about the Belgian Exchange program at Smith since I was in the fifth grade and have wanted to participate since I first heard about it. I remember that on March 13, or maybe it was 31, when I was in the fifth grade, my class walked over to Smith for the Middle School orientation. I am in High School now but I still remember the overwhelming excitement, and I remember being the most excited when I heard that the reason that the principal and my guidance counselor where not present at the orientation was that they were off in Belgium. I heard about the exchange program on that day for the first time and I knew immediately that I wanted to participate. When I started Middle School in the sixth grade I was in French class and I started hearing about the program again. “The Belgians are coming, the Belgians are coming!” This could be heard all throughout Smith starting in January and getting louder and more passionate through March until “The Belgians” finally arrived in April. Before the Belgians arrived I had helped to photocopy their profiles and create posters in the school and so for weeks following their arrival I went around the school recognizing them and had I not been the shy sixth grader I was, I would have gone up to them and greeted them by name. And the exchange in my sixth grade year was special because it was elongated by an unfortunate volcanic eruption in Iceland which shut down what seemed like every airport in the world for a couple of weeks. So in short, in my sixth grade year I witnessed the exchange for the first time, and I was more interested than ever in participating. In the Summer between my sixth and seventh grade year (Summer of 2011) I spent the first week after school got out working on an illustrated summary/version of the Little Prince because Madame Mcmahon had encouraged me to read the book in French in class and then there had been a book-making project which I had wanted to spend more time on. In the seventh grade it was one of the years where our school sends students to Belgium, so I was less involved, but no less interested. But before continuing, I should note that it is very difficult for me to distinguish between the Belgian Exchange and the French Class and Global Connections, possibly because they are all organized (wonderfully I might add) by Madame Mcmahon, or possibly because I was so involved in all of them that they began to bleed together. Indeed in this rambling post I am chronicling my experiences with Smith and French and Global Connections because for me they are all part of the Exchange and the experience and they were and still are a big part of my life. But moving on. That year (2011) I worked with my French class to set up Global Connections (or current events/global cultures/world problems/world fair/diversity/banquet held annually in November) and then for the Global Connections performances in February of that year I helped write and design/direct a play in French about both The Little Prince and a comparison of the Wrights Brothers and Les Frères Montgolfiers. The year flew by and then all of a sudden I would be in the eighth grade when school started again, which came as quite a shock to me. Madame Mcmahon had organized things for me so that I could walk up to Chapel Hill High School and take a French class there during my eighth grade year. (I entirely credit Madame Mcmahon with my ability to write in French and I will always be grateful to her for everything she did for me and for allowing me to take French III at the high school in the eighth grade.) The way she organized that was that she devoted her own time during the summer to helping me familiarize myself with the French II textbook and she would meet me at Smith during the Summer so that I could take tests and get help. But finally, I was in the eighth grade. This meant many things but most excitingly it meant that finally, finally, I would be able to be an active participant in the exchange. I was once again involved in organizing profiles and doing various activities that facilitated the exchange and I got to see the profile of my penpal and the girl who would be staying with me early on. Her name is Manon Knapik and she is delightful. I very clearly remember the night that she arrived. After months and years of waiting I was at the airport and there was a buzz of excitement in the air. I was thrilled but terrified at the same time and I remember holding the flowers I had purchased for Manon in one hand and holding up the edge of the poster reading “Soyez les Bienvenus” in the other and then I finally saw Manon walk across the line with the sign reading “You cannot go back once you have crossed this point” and then I walked up to her, petrified of course but so excited and greeted her and then we walked out of the airport into the unseasonably warm air outside of the airport and Manon commented that it certainly was warm and then I agreed and then we were off. The next two weeks flew by, with a combination of school, shopping, baseball games, trips to the beach, Virginia (Williamsburg and Busch Gardens), and making friendship bracelets, talking, enjoying walks outside, and reading side by side enjoying the company. When Manon left we both cried and we promised to stay in touch. And I knew I would see her in a year. Then High school started and I stopped going to Smith or seeing the people from Smith and I started enjoying high school and making new friends there and enjoying the classes and the freedom and the novelty of the whole thing. If I remember correctly the first meeting of the year for the Belgium trip was on October 17th at Smith. I walked into Smith not having been there for almost four months and I was at once excited and nostalgic. I walked through the halls without paying attention because I knew the school so well and had walked to Madame Mcmahon’s classroom so many times before. When I walked into the classroom it was like I was back in Middle School and I saw Ms. White and Ms. Mcmahon and Ms. Hounshell all gathered around a table and I saw all of the students around other tables and I kind of lost it just a little bit. I walked into the hallway and blinked back tears for a little while and I couldn’t figure out whether it was because I was happy or nostalgic or scared because I felt like I had lost something and couldn’t get it back. But this feeling gradually subsided during that meeting and as I attended more and more meetings any other emotions were clouded out by the excitement and anticipation of the trip. So now here I am, sitting in my room at 10:30 at night only three days before the trip, thinking back on my experiences at Smith and with the program. The above is a very short and poorly-strung-together summary of these experiences and I don’t know whether it’s particularly useful but I guess it brings me to my next point: What the program has been to me and how it has changed me and how it has made me who I am today. It’s very hard to describe the emotions I associate with the program, and it is hard for me to separate my feelings about the program from my feelings about the French classes at Smith, and about Smith itself, and about Madame Mcmahon especially, and about my other classes and teachers at Smith. I just don’t have the words to describe what the program has meant to me. To be part of the program is to be part of a community full of many supporters and so many members and so many alumni. When you are a teenager it is very important to feel like you belong and so French at Smith and everything associated with that was a place for me to belong. For four years now it has been a big part of my life and I am very grateful for that. And being part of that program and that community and makes you feel special and it makes you want to work harder and do bigger and better things. In middle school I started developing a pronounced interest in the European Union thanks to the curriculum surrounding the EU and francophone countries that was built into the French class and thanks to the aspects of the European Union that were covered in my Social Studies class (Thank you Ms. White). Then in the seventh grade Smith had its first Europe Day and I was on the Smith Euro Mania team. This was a European Union trivia contest held at Smith where the four middle schools in the district participated and the object of the game was to know the most information. We didn’t win the first year, but we did win the second year and it is thanks to Euro Mania that I know much of what I know about the European Union. Just as this developed my interests in the European Union, Madame Mcmahon asked Doctor Pringle, an economics professor from UNC to come in and speak to my seventh grade class. That allowed me to cultivate my increasingly pronounced interest in economics and once the Sovereign Debt Crisis in Europe became more and more pronounced I began linking my knowledge of the European Union with my knowledge of economics. Throughout all of these experiences I was in touch with Manon, my penpal, and this allowed to me to get a perspective on the European Union from someone living in one of the member countries, and that gave me an invaluable personal insight into the situation. So in short, the program provided a community and led me to develop my current passions (economics and european geo-politics). After Madame Mcmahon recommended the program to me, I found an outlet for those passions in Euro Challenge, which is an economics competition surrounding the Sovereign Debt Crisis and the Eurozone. (The competition is sponsored and organized by the Delegation of the European Union to the United States, which is the same organization that so generously has funded our Exchange program in the past. In fact, Silvia Kofler, whom I was lucky enough to meet when she came to speak at Smith, was actually one of the judges for a prior Euro Challenge competition.) On Friday I will present in and compete at the Euro Challenge Competition Regional Qualifying Round at UNC and then as soon as I have finished that I will go to the airport to go to Belgium and I find that extremely fitting because for me the two activities are inextricably linked – they are both ways I connect with the European Union and develop my interest in it. Three days left. I feel like now you know my life story, but that’s what I’ve been thinking about these last few days. This trip will be the culmination, in a way, of the past four years of my life, but they will by no means be the end of my participation in the program and my support of it. If you’ve kept reading, thank you, and before I stop writing I just want to say thank you to a couple of people. Thank you so much to Madame Mcmahon. You are incredible. This program is because of you. I am grateful for everything you have done for me and this post has been lengthy and all about me, but who I am is thanks to you, is I guess what I’m trying to say. Thank you also to the European Union for funding our trip and our program, this program has meant the world to me and it wouldn’t be possible without you. And thank you to BioMerieux, for your generous support as well. Thank you so much, I can’t thank you enough, merci, merci, merci.

    • Chere Adriana,
      Cette lettre est si touchante…c’est difficile à lire (sans pleurer) mais je te remercie mille fois ~ c’est une équipe d’enseignants et d’organizations qui le rendent possible, mais ce sont les élèves (comme toi) qui font la différence dans NOS VIES!

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