Exchange fosters understanding
A group of students from Northern Ireland visited Woodstock High School as part of a Rotary International exchange program called Toward a Better Understanding.
The group of six students from Belfast were in Woodstock for one day, but had been traveling the greater Chicago area for the previous two weeks.
The visit to Woodstock was coordinated through WHS Assistant Principal Brad Hubbard, who participated in the first phase of the exchange program at his former Highland Park school district last school year. Hubbard was selected to chaperone a group of six students from Highland Park on a trip to Northern Ireland. The students partnered with six Belfast-area students who served as host families.
Martha Gray, a member of the Highland Park Rotary Club, said the group was formed to create a better understanding of the issues facing other cultures.
In Northern Ireland, the major division is religion. A 28-year political struggle ended in Northern Ireland in 1998. During the time, religion served as a marker of national identity in the conflict zone. Protestant Unionists wanted to keep Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom, while Catholic Nationalists wanting to unite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. Religious leaders on both sides of the conflict had political and moral authority but also had to contend with powerful secular elites.
“These students didn’t grow up through the conflict,” explained Claire Savage, a member of the Rotary Club of Belfast and journalist for BBC Northern Ireland. The students were only 2 or 3 years old when a peace treaty known as the Good Friday Agreement was signed, a document signed to address relations between the various parties at the time.
While the agreement was signed, the country is still largely divided between the two religions today. During the exchange, Savage said students have the opportunity to speak freely about the issues without fear of upsetting anybody. She said the students have been able to experience a mingling of various ethnic backgrounds within the Woodstock and Highland Park schools.
“Despite their skin color, they can still be under one roof and still be friends,” Savage said.
The students met with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who told the students there are 26 ethnic groups in the Chicago area. Savage said if 26 ethnic groups can get along, surely there is a way to unite two religious groups.
Cameron Chambers, a student who attends a predominantly Protestant school, said he noticed a more relaxed atmosphere in American schools and was surprised how open students were about discussing their problems and challenges in life.
Aisling Toner, another visiting student, agreed and said she has encountered some issues with bullying in her school and felt some of skits and presentations performed by the WHS and Woodstock North High School Choose Respect group could be mimicked in her own school.