Students forge global connections as the Network Exchange Program resumes 


Gabrielle Wheeler '23

Sacred Heart Greenwich aims to fully resume the Network Exchange Program under new COVID-19 travel regulations.

The Biden Administration announced October 15 that fully vaccinated tourists may enter the United States starting November 8.  Regardless of vaccination status, visitors must present a negative COVID-19 test within three days of their arrival, according to The New York TimesSra. Montserrat García, Sacred Heart Greenwich Network Exchange Coordinator and Upper School Spanish Teacher, intends to fully resume the exchange program under the new regulations.  Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, junior Martina Bernal was the only Sacred Heart Greenwich student who went on exchange in 2021.

Martina stands in front of the Eiffel Tower with her exchange student, Coline.  Courtesy of Martina Bernal ’23

The Network Exchange program is reciprocal, with one Sacred Heart Greenwich student going abroad for every network student traveling to the United States.  The students and their families act as hosts while their exchange student visits their home country.

Students spend two or more weeks with their host families and attend school with their exchange students.  The program’s objective of immersing both students in a new environment gives them an understanding of a different culture and improves their language skills.

Thirty five students took part in the exchange program last year.  Despite COVID-19 travel restrictions, the program continued with a virtual format.  Students maintained contact with their exchange students through Zoom, FaceTime, and text messaging.  

The European Union lifted COVID-19 restrictions on travel in June 2021, allowing non-citizens to visit.  For two weeks in June, Martina traveled to Nantes, France to visit Coline De Gentil, a student at La Perverie Sacre Coeur.  Her experience increased her spoken fluency in the French language and allowed her to explore a new culture.  Martina attended the last two days of school at La Perverie before spending the rest of her trip exploring France with her host family.

“It was important for me to go on exchange because I had become really close with my exchange student over the course of the year and was really looking forward to meeting her and doing all the things she had planned for us,” Martina said.  “My favorite part was by far going to the island of Groix.  It was such a beautiful place and I’ve never seen water that clear or an area as beautiful that isn’t crowded with tourists.” 

Martina arrived in France shortly after the borders opened, prompting concerns regarding a possible shutdown and its impact on her return home.  

“I was afraid they would close [the borders] early and it would cut my trip short or I wouldn’t be able to get back home for longer,” Martina said.  “The mask restrictions were lifted for outdoors while I was there and the energy of the French people celebrating the mandate being lifted was also a highlight of my trip.”

Although Martina was the only Sacred Heart Greenwich student who went on exchange last year, Sra. García aims to send all Sacred Heart students abroad and welcome network students to Greenwich. 

“I have been in contact with a lot of our sister schools in Europe, and most of them are ready to send students abroad,” Sra. García said.  “I think everyone is excited to go back to the way things were before, especially with regard to traveling.”

This year, COVID-19 restrictions limit students to traveling to European countries.  Sacred Heart Schools in Australia, Austria, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand are unable to participate in the Network Exchange Program.  The Mount Anville Secondary School in Dublin, Ireland is uncertain whether they will take part this year.  Any school that is not sending students will not host any at their campus.  A school’s inability to host students makes them ineligible to participate in the Network Exchange Program. 

“Australia is not participating in the exchange program because they have been going through a lockdown,” Sra. García said.  “So is New Zealand.  When I reached out to both countries’ schools, they mentioned that they hope to resume their exchange by 2023.” 

Australia and Spain are the most popular locations for Sacred Heart Greenwich students to visit.  Spanish is one of five languages offered to Sacred Heart Greenwich students to fulfill the foreign language requirement.  Australia’s use of English makes it accessible to all Sacred Heart Greenwich students.

Despite the smaller number of schools that are participating in the program, Sra. García is optimistic that 2022 will be a year of sharing cultures, linguistics, and homes. 

Martina visits the island of Groix with her host family.  Courtesy of Martina Bernal ’23

“I think the biggest benefit of going versus virtual is that you’re immersed in the culture,” Sra. García said.  “Students are living the culture, (breathing, smelling, touching, hearing), while in a virtual setting it is difficult to take part in the culture as much.”

Martina spoke about her experience in Nantes, mentioning how her French skills improved through her two week immersion experience.

“All of my exchange student’s friends and family only spoke French, forcing me to really immerse myself in the language,” Martina said. 

The exchange program is a way for Sacred Heart students from around the world to learn from a school that shares their values yet has a different culture.  Each student embarks on exchange with the knowledge that they are joining a larger community.  The exchange program provides a space for students to see real-world applications of the grammar and vocabulary that they learn in class.   

“I believe the exchange is a very special program that Sacred Heart offers,” Sra. García said.  “It best represents the way our students live our mission and our goals and criteria: to a personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom. And of course, the perfect way to see how other Sacred Heart schools are living those same goals and criteria.  In addition to this, our exchange program is a language immersion opportunity which gives students the chance to study abroad the language they are taking at school.”

Featured Image by Gabrielle Wheeler ’23