Kate Levy in fashion show in Rwanda

Kate Levy in fashion show in Rwanda

Several Norwich students have had the experience to travel abroad and spend some time in schools in other parts of the world. We have the pleasure and honor to hear some of their experiences below. Mack and Kate Levy were in Rwanda for ten weeks with their family and were able to attend a local school there. Chiara Rothwell-Ferraris participated in the Rotary International Youth Exchange program which gives high school students the opportunity to live and study abroad for 9-12 months. She chose Indonesia. Chiara stayed with a host family while going to school, living, and learning the culture of Bandung, the third largest city of Indonesia. Mae Butler spent 7 weeks leading a community development project in Vaquilla, Coclé, Panama to teach sustainability in a rural community.

Going to school in Rwanda

Mack and Kate Levy

Day Before School Starts:

Kate said it best last night: “I’m looking forward to tomorrow so we can stop making assumptions about school and get on to the real thing!”


Mack Levy surrounded by new friends at school in Rwanda

Mack Levy surrounded by new friends at school in Rwanda

School began with a 2-hour entrance examination and grading period with an official acceptance upon reviewing the results. An hour in a room picking through end-of-year inventory for the closest sizes in school uniforms (one formal one, two gym-style ones that are worn most of the time) and the right classroom supplies. And then the selection of two after-school clubs – both of us chose football (soccer) and traditional Rwandan dance. Mack said “this is the only place in the world we can learn this!”


As we walked to Green Hills School on the first day, we practiced saying “Mwaramutse” (good morning) to everyone we passed. The return greeting is “Neza” which means “to you too.” When we arrived, both of us shook hands with our teachers and within seconds, our new classmates were showing us to our desks and asking us to point out Vermont on the world map.

At the end of the first day, Mack reported that everyone was very nice and had already made many friends, including someone who asked him to go to his birthday party. One girl who sat next to Mack helped him in Kinyarwanda and explained to him the traits of teachers and students. In return, Mack helped her with math. At recess they played soccer and tag. The kids here are really good at soccer, but not as much at tag. The style of teaching here is copying the teacher’s writing from the board into our book.

Kate was excited at the end of the first day as well. “I am with Teacher Beatrice in 4A. You never call anyone by Mrs, Ms, Miss or Mr, you always call them Teacher and then their first name. I made lots of friends! One of the girls, named Diella, invited me to her birthday party. School starts at 7:30 every day and ends at 3:30 most days, except for Wednesday when it ends at 12:45. I have a different teacher for each subject but I don’t go to their classroom, they come to mine. Except for PE. We either go to the giant gym or we go to an outdoor basketball court.”

Unique Experiences

A few weeks later, Mack and Kate were fully immersed in school life at Green Hills. Kate took part in a school-sanctioned “fashion show” where everyone dressed up traditionally from their home country or really any country they wanted to represent in a traditional outfit. Teacher Beatrice wanted Kate to dress up as an American. Kate said, “I didn’t realize that Teacher Beatrice and the other students think American style is basically Texan, so they wanted me to dress up like a cowgirl. I agreed and Teacher Beatrice wanted me to wear cowboy boots and hat and say “yeehaw,” but since no one in Vermont says that, I didn’t have to. All of the African countries had beautiful traditional dresses, which made my jeans and plaid shirt look casual, but when I came out, everyone cheered loudly! Other countries represented in the show were Rwanda, South Africa, and South Sudan.”

Mack was amazed by the community spirit in his afterschool sports. He reported, “Mondays I do basketball after school. There are only 1 or 2 balls for 30-40 kids between fifth and sixth grade who are all out on the court at one time. At one end of the court there’s usually a game, and at the other end it’s shooting around. Everyone passes to each other no matter what grade you’re in. It’s so fun to be out there with so many people and playing all together.”

We asked Kate and Mack about what they have studied in Rwanda that they wish they could do at Marion Cross. Mack replied, “study more international topics. Our grade has done a unit on the United Nations. We also studied the Rwandan Genocide. I think studying more non-USA topics would be good at MCS.”

And when asked about what they are looking forward to upon their return to Marion Cross – “EVERYTHING!” Our friends, our teachers, having teachers with a growth mindset that are there to help you, Rep, recess, eating in our classroom instead of a cafeteria, not standing out so much and having everyone come up to us all the time.”

Community Development in Panama

Mae Butler

People of Vaquilla, Panama

People of Vaquilla, Panama

Last summer, I spent 7 weeks leading a community development project in Vaquilla, Coclé, Panama. Vaquilla is a town of less than a thousand people. It sits on a hill between four mountains, about an hour and a half from the nearest city. It sings in color: green forests, blue skies, red dirt, and black rain. If, by chance, you were to brave the turbulent bus ride from Vaquilla to Penonomé (provincial capital of Coclé), you would find a striking but dirty, industrial city.

Vaquilla makes Norwich look like Manhattan. The largest building is a single-storied school, followed closely by the church. Monday through Friday the students trek into the town along the single dirt road, running through one end of town and out the other. Those that have visited Penonomé know where it comes from, but few know where it leads. They flow from homes perched high in bordering mountains. On Sunday, the Vaquieños flock in, the bulk of them arriving to church around 8:30. I think, if you asked, they would tell you that the service starts at 8:00, but time in Latin American works differently, and no one seems to mind. There is no rush, after all.

I was posted in Vaquilla by a program called Amigos de las Americas. My Texan partner Ella and I were sent there to facilitate a community-based-initiative-project (CBIP) and teach sustainability in workshops 5 days a week.

Mae Butler, surrounded by new family and friends in Panama

Mae Butler, surrounded by new family and friends in Panama

I know: volunteerism. I can’t count the number of articles I’ve read in the last year exposing its alleged terrors. Most of them paint a narrative of privileged kids taking expensive trips to deliver supplies that last for a month, maybe two, to impoverished “villages” across the globe. It’s called need-based aid. I’m not saying it isn’t a valuable experience for the participants, but materials and funds themselves don’t create lasting change for the recipients. So it’s true: A lot of “aid,” especially in the developing world, is superficial. When I tell people that I spent last summer leading a development project in rural Panama, I get the sense that they assume the worst, but that’s okay. Unfortunately, the number of failures in global aid calls attention away from the successes.

For the record, Amigos works differently. Amigos’ goal is community development, which is resource-based aid. Instead of providing short-lived relief from an issue, resource-based aid depends on sustainable infrastructure and civic empowerment.

In my case, it was up to the Vaquieños to choose their own project. It took two weeks of town meetings and door-to-door introductions for Vaquieños to brainstorm, debate, and decide upon an organic greenhouse. I’d love to say the rest of the summer was smooth-sailing, but that would be a lie. There was a lot of social tension in Vaquilla, and it was a challenge to draw the community together. No matter whom Ella and I invited into the project, someone felt excluded. There were concerns of embezzlement of project funds, and material-donors backed out more than once. I spent a lot of time mediating angry adults, and that doesn’t even account for the gender-confusion the Panamanian men experienced when I picked up a shovel. But, the Vaquieños were extraordinary people.

While change isn’t at the forefront of Latin American culture, acceptance is. With the help of the teachers from the school, we created a work schedule, and by the time I left in August, the project was well underway.

In October, my host mom sent me a photo of the finished greenhouse. There it was: Roderick Robles, a close friend, knelt beside a culantro plant. The caption wrote, cosechamos (we’re harvesting). His smile actually beamed in the picture, but it was nothing compared to mine.

The day I left Vaquilla, I didn’t know what I would miss. I mounted the bus that promised to bring me to Penonomé. Sr. Milton – the agriculture teacher, who was invested in the greenhouse for its academic merits – stopped me. He told me that he was proud – of me, of his students, of the community, and of the change we made together. He thanked me for learning to love people rich “not in money, but in affection.” He caught me off guard, but I corrected him.

The people of Vaquilla had opened their homes, faiths and families to me. At first, I didn’t fit into the space they created for me. I didn’t know how to explain myself to them – my atheist beliefs, divorced parents, or college ambitions. But with time, I learned how to be a part of a community unlike anything I had ever known. They helped me realize my own responsibilities as a global citizen, and showed me my place in our tiny globe.

I looked back to Sr. Milton, and told him how I felt. The Vaquieños owed me nothing. Six thousand miles away from my house, they had made me a home.

First Day of School in Indonesia

Chiara Rothwell-Ferraris

School in Bandung, Indonesia

School in Bandung, Indonesia

I had already been awake for hours anticipating my first day of school when the alarm clock finally went off at five o’clock in the morning. I could already sense the dry heat of the day through my window and the lush palm fronds beckoned me in the morning breeze. The low chants of the prayers were calling all to worship their god, a sound so unfamiliar to me. I sat up onto the edge of my bed and stayed there for a minute wondering what lay before me on this day. My maid had laid out a crisply ironed blue uniform with my name sewn in above the breast pocket the night before.

After taking a quick shower and trying to wash away all my nervous thoughts, I secured my long skirt with the belt buckle that showed the name of my new school. After one look in the mirror and with a deep breath I opened my door to the stairs.

I went down to find freshly sliced fruits waiting for me on the table – dark purple dragonfruit, and bright orange mango.

Before sending me out the door, Ibu Heksa, my host mother, buttoned up the top button of my shirt and said, “Don’t be nervous, Chiara. Everybody will love you.” Pak Ucup, my driver, was outside smoking his cigarette, waiting to bring his new foreigner friend to school. “Cantik (beautiful),” he said when he saw me in my new uniform.

Chiara made new friends along the way

Chiara made new friends along the way

I encountered a dream I wasn’t part of on the way to school. There were motorcycles, smoke, and people everywhere. I sat in the back of the car and looked out at all the people buzzing around on their various modes of transportation.

Families of three rode on motorcycles, cutting in front of one another, weaving in and out, with many close calls. Among the smoke and heat, thousands of people made their way to work and school. I remember being so nervous – my eyes welling with tears – and missing the familiar feeling of home. I didn’t want to leave the comfort of my driver and that car when we got to the parking lot of the school but I knew it was time to face my fear of the unknown.

Little did I know I was about to meet the people who would become my best friends and family for my time in Indonesia.