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In Roxbury, French students learn about 'real' Boston

Talia Whyte | 8/7/2009, 7:02 a.m.

As French President Nicolas Sarkozy traveled last week to Washington to establish smoother diplomacy with the White House, a group of French high school students came to John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science in Roxbury to make their own contribution to Franco-American relations.

The students’ visit was the culmination of two years of planning by two Kiwanis chapters on both sides of the Atlantic. Kiwanis is an international organization dedicated to serving the welfare of youth.

Fabienne Rainer-Alexander, an English teacher from the small French town of Saverne, wanted to establish an exchange program between her school, Lycée Leclerc de Saverne, and a school in Boston. She asked her husband, the president of the Kiwanis chapter in their town, to contact Boston Police Sgt. Larry Van Zandt, a past distinguished lieutenant governor of the Roxbury Kiwanis. Van Zandt then got the ball rolling with Doannie Tran, a biology teacher at the O’Bryant School.

“When my husband contacted Larry, I thought that since my students specialize in science, it would make sense to come to the O’Bryant,” Rainer-Alexander said.

Lycée Leclerc de Saverne is one of the top science schools in France. This is not the class’ first time to the United States; for the last three years, Rainer-Alexander has brought her students to the Rivendell Academy, an interstate school on the Vermont-New Hampshire border. According to Tram, this is the first exchange program for the O’Bryant.

During their week in Boston, the French pupils attended classes with O’Bryant students and visited tourist attractions like the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Freedom Trail.

But more than just an opportunity for sightseeing, the trip’s organizers stressed that this visit was meant to be a “human exchange” that would expose the French students to the racial and economic realities in America.

The visitors’ hometown is located in the eastern French region of Alsace, near the Rhine River, which separates France from Germany. According to Rainer-Alexander and her students, Saverne is a rural, middle-class, mostly white community, where less than 10 percent of the population is Arab or West African.

“Our goal is to broaden [the French students’] minds,” said Tran. “They only have a certain impression of America being rich and fabulous from television. We want them to have a real experience of America. We are going beyond stereotypes.”

The French students were assigned to stay in the homes of O’Bryant students and trip organizers from all over Boston. Almost immediately, all participants noticed the differences between how Americans and the French go about their daily lives, as evidenced by their eating habits.

“Americans don’t eat together as a family,” said Van Zandt, who hosted a couple of students in his home. “In France, people sit down and eat together because it is seen as a social gathering.”

Matthias Gries, 17, stayed at the home of O’Bryant junior Huy Nguyen, 16, in Dorchester. Gries not only got a crash course on American culture, but he also got some insight into Nguyen’s Vietnamese family traditions.

“It was different living with Huy because he lives in a small apartment with his whole family and I live in a big house back in France,” Gries said. “Boston is so diverse. In Boston, there are blacks, Chinese people and all kinds of people. Unlike where I am from, Boston is a melting pot.”

Julia Berthel, 17, was a guest in a house in Chinatown and was shocked to learn that some teenagers in the U.S. have after-school jobs.

“The person I am staying with works to save money for college, and I don’t have to do that,” she said.

When they return to France, the students will present a trip report to the school district committee in Saverne.

As the French guests departed Saturday, trip organizers acknowledged that the next step is to raise enough money to send the O’Bryant students to Saverne next year and are actively seeking funders. While the French students could easily afford the trip, it would be very difficult for their Boston counterparts to do the same. Both trip organizers and the students hope that Bostonians will see the value in a cultural exchange like this.

“We would be disappointed if the O’Bryant students didn’t come to France,” Berthel said. “I want them to come to my country and show [them] the same hospitality they showed me.”