Vashon hosts Costa Rican students in brand-new exchange program

About 18 students (plus visiting teachers) spent about three weeks this January visiting Vashon.

More than a dozen Costa Rican students have returned to their home in Central America after visiting Vashon this month, with new friends, memories, and an appreciation of cold weather.

About 18 students (plus visiting teachers) spent about three weeks this January visiting Vashon, where they stayed with host families, explored the Pacific Northwest and bettered their English with the help of Vashon High School (VHS) Spanish teachers Sarah Powell and Lenka Becvar, and other teachers and community members.

The program with Costa Rica is new, but it’s far from the first time Vashon has welcomed exchange students.

Since the 1990s, the school had a strong relationship and exchange program with Himeji Minami High School in Japan, but school district officials announced the shuttering of Vashon’s Japanese program in 2019 due to variable enrollment and difficulty in finding staff for the course. It was replaced with a French program, which is now also being discontinued.

The Japanese students will return again this spring, Powell said, although there are currently no plans to send Vashon students back over to Himeji.

“There’s still a relationship, but it’s not as formal as it was,” Powell said.

Powell said she’s always wanted to facilitate a true school-to-school exchange, where students from both countries could build friendships in each other’s homeland. Finally, last year, she heard about Liceo Bilingual de Pococí in Guapiles, Limon, Costa Rica, an experimental bilingual school that was looking for the same thing, and the schools connected.

Visiting Vashon

The students arrived on Vashon just in time for a frigid cold snap across the island. Many of the Costa Rican students had never seen snow before; some of them ice-skated for the first time at Fisher Pond and other regional ice rinks.

That’s the power of travel and firsthand experience: “I know they came with a concept of it — knowing it’s going to be cold,” Powell said. “But can you even conceive of it being that cold when you have nothing to compare it to?”

The visiting students were blessed with a quintessential island experience during their trip, Powell said, when during a visit to the Pt. Robinson lighthouse, they saw a passing Orca pod and a few even glimpsed a seal and an otter too.

“I’m just blown away at the sheer coincidence,” she said. “… I couldn’t plan that. It all just happened. Char Phillips, our athletics director and bus driver extraordinaire, took them over — she was almost emotional about it.”

During their time here, the students visited Sawbones, Pt. Defiance Zoo, Pike Place Market, Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture and more. They concluded their final evening on the island on Jan. 19 with a community dinner, dance and an artistic workshop led by island artist Ray Pfortner, in which the visiting students preserved photographs from their trip in tile using beeswax.

Near the end of that workshop, the students expressed gratitude to the school for their time on the island and said they’d love to come back.

“We had a lot of fun,” Costa Rican student Shantany Ortiz said. “We’re so thankful. We feel so comfortable here.”

The students also got to visit New York, but Costa Rican student Monserrat Monge said she loved Seattle for being more quiet and relaxed.

People on Vashon “are so nice, especially the people here in the school,” Monge said. “I met a lot of people here. I’ll say goodbye … but I don’t want to.”

Students Ebony Elizondo Stuart and Tatiana Gomez Alvarez said the week of cold weather was scary, but their time here was fun and filled with friendly people. They came over with the idea from friends that people in the U.S. could be rude — but “everyone was so friendly,” they said.

The Costa Rican students wrapped up with a performance of Calypso dance at the VHS theater for students and staff. At the culmination of their performance, the students invited their peers and staff from VHS onstage for a raucous performance of “Electric Boogie” (The Electric Slide) and displayed the Costa Rican tri-colored flag.

Just before the performance, assistant principal Sabrina Kovacs raised a round of applause for Powell and the host families.

“She pulled this whole thing off,” Kovacs said. “She’s the MVP, the star behind the scenes. I cannot thank you enough, Sarah, for making this experience happen for all of us. … To hear the stories that the kids tell … the love, attention, affection, and generosity that you have all given to our guests has been fantastic.”

In true Vashon fashion, the students ran straight from the conclusion of their performance to the parking lot to catch a Triangle route ferry, which was scheduled to depart only 20 minutes later.

“It’s so cold! It’s so cold! It’s so cold,” a Costa Rican student exclaimed as she dashed out of the high school.

Looking ahead

The program was not without its challenges, Powell said, especially finding homestays for all the students, organizing transportation across the region and keeping everyone in communication. She said it’s a lesson to secure those homestay families and busses and vans earlier next time and to work on communication with homestay families.

Powell said she intends to run the exchange program only every other year because it’s so expensive and requires so much fundraising.

In February, a smaller crew of VHS students and staff will complete the exchange and travel to Costa Rica, where they’ll be immersed in Spanish and Central American culture.

When learning a language, little compares to actually living in a household and country where it’s widely spoken. Powell has taken students on trips before, “but those tend to be more touristy, no matter what you do,” she said.

“It is just a deeper, richer experience when you can have a homestay involved,” Powell said.

The timing doesn’t hurt either: “There is some motivation, perhaps there,” Powell said with a laugh. “It is nice to leave this particular area in February.”

Powell traveled as a student and an adult, and has worked with organizations such as Partners of the Americas to chaperone exchange programs, including spending two months as a chaperone in Costa Rica. But this is her first time facilitating an exchange program.

“I do think that traveling is just one of the most formative experiences,” she said. “What you learn about yourself and your own culture, your own resiliency, is huge. It’s a hard thing, even when everything goes right. … Knowing you’re able to handle yourself in this new environment is huge.”

It’s learning that “you can’t necessarily quantify,” Powell said: “But those intangibles are so important. … That’s where I think the good stuff happens.”