Little Rock Sister Cities Organizes Virtual Student Exchange
Little Rock Students Building Bridges Across the Atlantic
By Commissioner Lenka Horakova, Little Rock Sister Cities
“What is Yorkshire pudding?,” one Little Rock student wanted to know.
“Do most of the students go watch and support your sports teams?” a student from Newcastle asked his Little Rock counterpart.
“UK is on my bucket list,” concluded a Little Rock student at the end of a virtual student exchange session that the Little Rock Sister Cities Commission jointly organized with Newcastle Upon Tyne in the United Kingdom.
The Little Rock commission is part of a network of International Sister Cities that strive to promote peace through mutual respect, understanding and cooperation – one individual and one community at a time. Little Rock currently has sister city relationships with:
- Caxias do Sul, Brazil
- Changchun and Jining, China
- Newcastle upon Tyne
- Hanam City, South Korea and
- Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
In a “normal” year, we generally host sister city representatives in Little Rock or send delegations to our sister cities to work on economic development, educational and cultural projects. Since international travel has not been possible for more than a year now, we pursued alternative ways to connect. That’s why we organized our first ever international virtual student exchange between high school students from Walker Academy in Newcastle and local students from Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, Jr.’s Youth Council.
The goal of the virtual student exchange was to bring a group of young people from two different countries together to discuss topics that are important to them, to learn from each other and to gain a more global perspective. We organized three Zoom meeting sessions, with 10-18 students at each meeting. Students who participated in the exchange were 16-18 years old and came from diverse backgrounds. Most of them had never travelled across the Atlantic, with most of their understanding of the respective countries coming from watching movies.
After the students got to know each other during the first informal session, they chose to discuss more serious topics that affect their lives and their communities. I was impressed by the Mayor’s Youth Council choice to discuss relevant issues in Little Rock, such as homelessness, unequal access to health care, racial and wealth inequality and food insecurity. Their topics were well-researched. The goal was to frame potential solutions for these issues. Students broke into several groups and passionately discussed the topics. Surprisingly, they discovered many similarities between Little Rock and Newcastle. The most surprising topic for them was the healthcare system, services were free in the United Kingdom, but sometimes very expensive in the U.S. Needless to say, they did not have a quick fix for improving the U.S. health care system. Kendra Pruitt, senior advisor to Mayor Scott, encouraged them to run for political office, when they are old enough, to make the changes they want to see in their community.
Newcastle students wanted to learn more about the school system and high school culture in the U.S. They were curious about everything from curriculum and fun club activities to examinations and school rules, including dress codes. Students also discussed bullying: The Newcastle students had the impression that it was common in the U.S. based on what they had seen in American movies.
“What has the last year in school looked like for you?” one of the students asked his peers in Little Rock.
Newcastle experienced two lockdowns during the past year and the schools were closed for an extended period of time from March 20 through September 4, 2020 and then again from January 4 through March 8, 2021. Students exchanged personal stories of the challenges they encountered studying from home but also recounted a few positives, such as having more time without commuting to school every day and less stress in their lives.
“The students have enjoyed the sessions and gained so much from them,” reported Kerry Brayson, assistant headteacher from Walker’s Academy in Newcastle who works directly with the students. It was nice to hear from the students themselves at the conclusion of our last meeting that they “were able to have a really good conversation” and they wanted to stay in touch with their new friends. And that’s precisely what our volunteer work is all about: Removing stereotypes and creating dialogue and friendships between people from different countries.