North and South Laurel high schools have been recognized for excellence in global education by Education First (EF) High School Exchange Year, one of the leading nonprofit exchange student programs.
"The EF High School Exchange Year Global Education Excellence Award is presented annually to high schools that demonstrate an extraordinary commitment to international understanding and global awareness," said Tabitha House, local EF High School Exchange coordinator. "South Laurel High School and North Laurel High School were among a select group of high schools and districts recognized across the United States for the 2018-19 school year."
North and South have integrated the EF exchange program for 30 years total — starting when they were both one school in the form of Laurel County High School.
"The benefits are mutual among our local students and the exchange students," said Michael Black, principal of North Laurel High School. "It's an opportunity to experience different cultures. Even for our students, it's an opportunity to interact with someone most students will never have an opportunity to interact with: someone from a foreign country. They learn about each other's beliefs, their habits, what the educational system is like."
For the 2018-2019 school year, North housed Mariam Moen, a senior from Norway. South integrated three exchange students: Mali Bakken, also from Norway; Arianna Santucci of Italy and Sara Gustafsson from Sweden.
"They're top-notch students. They come in with a positive attitude every day, they're here to learn, they're here to participate in school-wide events. I'm happy they're here and that they're excelling in all these areas," said Jeremy Kidd, principal of South Laurel High School.
Both principals say their students have offered nothing but kindness to those studying from abroad. The students agree.
"Everybody's been really welcoming. Really curious, asking a lot of questions, but really nice welcoming with open arms," said Moen.
"Different people have helped me fit in," recalled Santucci. "My host family has always been there for me from the first moment I met them. I like them a lot and they helped me through my first exchange year."
The exchange students all cited school sports events as one of the most unique things about American schools. According to House, school-wide sports aren't common in their countries.
"Being a part of the student section — the group of students that come together to cheer for teams has been fun," said Bakken. "We loved meeting the students at the school and being a part of the school culture and the spirit."
"The student section does different themes," added Kidd. "They have props, they have chants. Our student section was actually voted the number one student section in the state of Kentucky."
Not just the school, but the city of London as well proved quite different from the homes of the exchange students. Moen said social media wasn't quite as prevalent in the west coast of Norway. Santucci noted that London is much smaller than Rome.
"I'm used to taking public transportation every day. Here, I have to travel by car. However, I like being in a different environment. I like seeing different sights, different lifestyles," she said.
Each of the students are excited to go back home, but it's a bittersweet leave.
"We feel like we're leaving our family and best friends to go back to our family and best friends," said Bakken. "Being an exchange student has been a really great experience. Our South Laurel High School family has been there for us, along with our host families and all the people we met through the year."
"Even though London's very small, there's so many wonderful people here," said Gustafsson, "I think that's the best part. My host family really helped me out, and the students as well."
To learn more about getting involved with high school exchange in this community, contact EF High School Exchange Year local coordinator Tabitha House at 606-224-3261. You may also call the EF High School Exchange Year main office at 1-800-447-4273 or visit www.efexchangeyear.org.