Making Connections

Every year, for a week in October, students from around the world convene at Collegiate School for a leadership conference. The International Emerging Leaders Conference (IELC) brings together high schoolers from eleven countries worldwide, from South Africa to Kazakhstan to Spain. During the conference, the delegates have the chance to listen to speakers, explore Richmond, tour local colleges, and visit Washington D.C. They participate in a rigorous Design Thinking process over the week as well, designing and pitching a product that is meant to help solve an environmental problem somewhere in the world. Many participants feel that the most important part of the conference is not the planned activities but the people who make up the conference and the relationships and connections they make. Since the conference started five years ago, many of the participants still remain in contact with the friends they have made, and many plan to continue to stay in contact. The delegates who attend the conference each have an interesting story to tell and are fascinating people to get to know. For those who missed the opportunity to do this, the following profile may help fill the void of the missed international connection.

Meet Sofia L. from the Carol Baur school in Mexico City, Mexico. Sofia, one of two siblings, has an older sister, an Italian father, and a Mexican mother. Sofia describes herself as “supposed to be a Catholic, but I am not, I do not have any religion.” She is an atheist. Sofia’s extraverted character is easily conveyed by her loud voice, which can always be heard telling jokes or stories to lighten the mood. As her host sister, Julia M. (’17) says, “[Sofia is] really funny and [says] outrageous things that really make no sense, but she says them just for other people’s enjoyment.” One of my own first impressions of Sofia was during her group’s presentation of their product on the night of Design Pitch, when Sofia would break the awkward silence by cracking jokes and telling the audience “Come on guys, don’t make this awkward!” During the conference, Sofia says she has learned that “they’re some cultures that [she] didn’t know about so it was really surprising to learn about them.” Another thing the conference taught Sofia was “no matter where you are from, everyone’s the same and we have the same thoughts.” One difference she noticed between Richmond and Mexico City was “the people are so different because in Richmond it’s so quiet and peaceful, and in Mexico City it’s noisy all the time.” Sofia’s favorite part of America “has been the people, they have been so kind.”

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Host Sisters hugging before their last goodbye. Photo Credit: Julia M.

During the conference, each international student stays with a host family, whose relationship is a defining aspect of the conference. Most students are randomly paired with a host family; however, Julia was no stranger to Sofia before the conference started. Julia “met her last February when [she] went to Mexico City with other Collegiate students. Sofia was [her] first friend in Mexico.” Julia recalls how “no one had fed me my first day, and she was the first person to ask me if I was hungry and offered me food. She was really a welcoming person when I had first gotten to Mexico, and I was nervous about the whole situation.” This started a relationship that was strengthened throughout the course of the conference in Mexico and continued through Collegiate’s IELC. Upon hearing that Sofia was coming to Collegiate for the IELC conference, Julia says “I was really excited, and I told her that I would request to host her and then I asked Mrs. Rusbult if I could host her and it all happened from there.”

This is evidence of an emerging trend that is a byproduct of international conferences and travels; students making lasting international connections that cross cultural and geographical differences. A system of a student experiencing the feeling of being welcomed by someone when traveling and then, in turn, giving that same feeling to someone who is traveling to their hometown is being established by people like Julia and Sofia. Mary Ottley (‘17), who attended the same conference in Mexico, recalls the unforgettable memories her host family gave to her and cites this experience as one of the driving forces behind her eagerness to host an international student this year. I can attest to the potency of this system. Last year, my family had the opportunity to host Miriame, a student from Morocco. Thanks to Miriame, I had the chance to learn about Moroccan culture while Miriame experienced American culture. Even though she only stayed with us for a week, my family felt like Miriame had become a third sister by the end of her visit; at dinner she would entertain the family with funny stories from her day or tell us about her life in Casablanca, Morocco.  This summer, I visited Morocco and was welcomed into her home. Throughout my visit, Miriame kept on telling me how excited she was to be hosting her host, and I personally enjoyed the opportunity to not only see my friend but also be hosted by her, which would not have been possible without last year’s conference.

The IELC conference, and student conferences like it across the world, helps the students build leadership skills; however, for those ‘emerging leaders’, the most meaningful part of the conference is the relationships built during the week the attendees spend together.

Read the IELC blog HERE!

About the author

Georgia is new to writing bios and doesn't know what to say here. She is a junior at Collegiate and enjoys long walks on the beach.