Every spring for the last 20 years, Oak Hill School teacher Armando Morales escorts a group of 10-15 Spanish language students (grades 7-12) to his hometown of Guanajuato, Mexico, in the heart of the Sierra Madre. They’re welcomed into local families and, with their new Mexican brothers and sisters, go to the same middle school—Benito Juarez—that Mr. Morales attended as a boy.
The OHS students practice their language skills and get to know their new friends, peers, and second families. They perform community service activities such as helping out in an orphanage, working to create a recycling program, and painting an elementary school.
“It opens your eyes,” says 11th grader Ilsa Frazer, a four-time participant, “I felt like I was able to help people and make some sort of difference.” She adds, smiling, “It’s great to not have your cellphone for two weeks.”
Then the program reverses itself. The children of the Guanajuato host families come to the United States to experience life in Eugene—attending classes, eating school meals, and exploring the wonders of the Oregon Coast with OHS students.
The exchange culminates in the annual Equinox Festival. College students from the University of Oregon’s International Studies Program come to OHS to share their varied heritages and cultures. In small groups, it’s a day of trading stories and thoughts, reading poems in multiple voices, and each year planting a commemorative tree in what’s become a small copse. Many hands help to bury the roots.
“This experience helps students see the world through a different lens,” says Head of School Robert Sarkisian. “The journey builds a hundred bridges.”