Breaking the Ice

Despite recent tensions in Eastern Europe, San Diego has embraced their sister city relationship with Vladivostok, Russia. In April 2014, the sister city program sent four 7-8th grade students on a school exchange. The students were chosen from a Russian language afterschool club at Perkins School, taught by Fernando Hernandez, President of Perkins K-8 School in San Diego and President of the San Diego-Vladivostok Sister City Society.

Once Principal Hernandez and the student delegation arrived in Vladivostok, they were invited to partake in many activities both in school and out, keeping the group busy throughout their 10-day stay. American students were initially put into classes designed for beginning proficiency Russian speakers at School 78. With an easier curriculum, the students were able to hone in on the Russian skills they had acquired in their afterschool club to get ready to join their Russian peers.

Interestingly, when the American and Russian students were initially put into classes together, the groups were shy, and would giggle and glance at one another, as both groups were nervous to be the first to greet their peers. However, the ice was finally broken when one 3rd grade Russian student shared a muffin with the American students. This gesture quickly encouraged the American students to share spicy Mexican candy they brought from San Diego with their new friends, causing bonds to quickly form. With the Russian students’ English proficiency at a higher level, they created many opportunities to start conversations and forge friendships. The students even came prepared with written questions to ask one another during passing periods!

While exploring the history of Vladivostok outside of school, the group adventured through tunnels built under the city that were used when Vladivostok was primarily a military garrison. In addition, students continued to learn more about Russian culture as they toured the Far Eastern Federal University, a history museum, a safari park, went to the circus, the theatre, an aquarium, out to eat traditional Russian cuisine, and visited a resort with their host families where they made a potluck dinner and discussed U.S. and Russian traditions. After visiting many of the interesting sites that Vladivostok has to offer and interacting with their Russian peers first hand, one student said, “When I look at the map, Russia has meaning to me now.”

As the last day approached, the group sang songs together and Russian students gave their American friends jewelry and gifts before their departure. American students were overwhelmed by their new friends’ generosity, “Russian people are incredible, they gave us everything,” one student added.

This was the first student exchange from San Diego to Vladivostok. Principal Hernandez got all appropriate approvals from the San Diego central district office, ensured that all host families were vetted and assured parents that students would be supervised at all times. San Diego and Vladivostok have an agreement that once they’re in their respective sister cities, it is the home city’s responsibility to cover all expenses, and therefore the only cost to cover is airfare! For this exchange, the San Diego Sister Cities Society and Principal Hernandez graciously donated a total of $900 toward the students’ airfare costs, and the students’ families covered the rest of the costs.

In the future, both Principal Hernandez and the Principal at School 78 want to grow the program to include a one month stay, a group of 15 students, and to design a program of simultaneous academic projects to be held in their respective schools in preparation for future exchanges. Students felt that they gained tools to tackle future issues and a new sense of global understanding, as Principal Hernandez poignantly summed, “People on the other side of the world have the same dreams that we do. They have the same worries, the same needs, and their parents love their children as much as we love ours. They want the best future possible.”