Realising the Learning Potential of International Friendship

By Sandy Watt on 14/06/2017

“Friendship ... is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself’ . . .”  C.S Lewis

In our schools, we have long understood the value in forging and cultivating personal friendships throughout the world. We have championed projects, large and small, from pen pal pairings and video conferences through to international exchanges.  

For our students, we know it is one of the most compelling ways a young person can gain an insight into a world so completely different from their own. It provides them with a launchpad to explore a different culture and environment, guided by their new-found friend. They can compare directly the similarities and differences of the lives that they live. They can be honest, they can ask questions – perhaps even questions that they would be too shy to ask of an adult.

As educators, we know that forging friendships with colleagues around the world helps us in our role too. Such friendships inspire us, challenge our thinking, and provide new and exciting ideas that we can often adapt for our own schools and local communities. 

Over the years, even without the technologies we have today, thousands of friendships across the globe have enriched the lives of countless students and provided a new perspective for their teachers. But it is perhaps only in recent times, with the explosion in IT capabilities and social media, that we are starting to understand the full potential of international friendship as a sustainable and lifelong learning opportunity.

Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is among those leading the charge with ambitions to use his friendship network to ‘bring us closer together and build a global community’. But Zuckerberg’s ambition is even more extensive than this: he sees this community as being essential to promoting peace and understanding and even tackling major global problems, such as poverty in the developing world. 

Such ambition comes at an important time in our history with the rise in support for isolationism, the growth of extremism, and continued conflict in many parts of the world between people of different nations, ethnic backgrounds and religions. Technology has provided us with the tools to create more international connections than ever before but it’s essential we leverage its full potential.

The growth in extremism is a trend that concerns all of us and yet it should also embolden us. We are fortunate to work in schools where our students may well go on to perform leadership roles in social, political,  environmental, education, business, and many other fields. We have an opportunity to shape their thinking; to see the value in international friendships in terms of their own character and self-development and mould a frame of tolerance and openness that they can use to interpret and positively impact the world around them. 

This endeavour requires us to encourage a deeper type of friendship; one that is built on an informed understanding of that friend’s environment and an ability to see, acknowledge and respect ways of living and thinking that may be different from our own. 

At Round Square, we have seen how deep friendships can form very quickly – within the space of a few weeks or even days – by creating events that offer a unique shared experience for participants.

Taking part in an International Service Project, for example, is perhaps one of the most compelling ways in which a group of people can form a life-long bond. As strangers, they are plunged together into a challenging situation, in an unfamiliar and often difficult environment, and given a shared goal. Round Square Service Projects take place all over the world – in the coming year we will be visiting Tanzania and Vietnam – and involve a range of activities from creating environmental trails through to building new classrooms and water systems.

With the projects attracting young people from nations across the world, one often finds participants quickly develop and practise new tools to connect and communicate.

“The project has allowed me to connect with and appreciate people from across the globe, and helped me understand that the differences between us are minor and make for an interesting relationship. Meeting people from a range of cultural and economic backgrounds has given me a wider field of view of the world,” says Amber Anderson, a student from Bunbury Cathedral Grammar School, who participated in the RSIS Project in Nepal. “I learnt that language barriers barely prevent you from making friends, and that being kind and smiling is a universally understood method of communication which works just as effectively as having a conversation.”

Another participant in the Nepal Project, Amy Carruthers from St Cyprian's School, found that, “the people I met on this trip were each one in a million and all of them impacted me in ways I would never have expected prior to the trip.” And Aurelio Wenzel from Gordonstoun discovered, “that even if people are vastly different to you culturally or morally, if put in the same environment and phone taken away it was like talking to friends rather than strangers.” 

The lifelong friendships forged on these service projects are not just for the students. Leah Hall, a teacher from Glenlyon Norfolk School, Canada took part in a service training project in Cambodia where a group of teachers from Round Square schools developed project leadership skills whilst creating a weaving centre for the benefit of the local community. “My whole life I have loved travelling and meeting new people but getting involved with Round Square and discovering the added benefits of international service has been truly transformational,” she says. “As an adult, one does not easily make new, authentic friendships but spending two weeks in a new environment with a great group of people from around the world forges a bond that cannot be matched. Learning, growing, working together to solve problems, and even taking care of each other when illness hits, accelerated the conversations and interactions between people, who were otherwise strangers. Being involved with Round Square means continuous, international reunions that allow this bond to continue and even grow. 

In such an environment, your gender, nationality, religion, and cultural background fade into irrelevance in contrast to your ability to serve the project’s needs and work as part of a global team. Deep friendships are formed quickly, inspiring all involved to look more widely at the world around them.

And International Service Projects represent just one of Round Square’s many antidotes to the dynamics of our familiar social networks, where it is far too easy to be attracted to individuals and groups who are most like us, and can serve to complement rather than challenge our own opinions.

The Round Square conference programme actively seeks to bring together people with different views and backgrounds and, through stimulating debate and discussion, invites greater understanding and celebration of these differences. The Round Square International Conference, situated in a different region of the world each year, gathers together over 1000 young people and teachers from 50 countries, and encourages each to leave with a new circle of friends and a broader perspective on the world. Through workshops, discussion and teambuilding activities, delegates’ ideas and assumptions are interrogated and stereotypes imploded.

“From starting as complete strangers to each other, we all became great friends by the end of the conference,” says Ellie Belonogoff from Rockhampton Grammar School. “It was interesting to find out how people from other parts of the world live their lives and I loved talking to them about life in Australia.”

Round Square enables me to form links with people all around the world,” says Hannah Samuel-Ogbu from Cobham Hall in the UK. “We all have something in common and that's the beauty of being in a Round Square school. I have a great interest in other cultures and people. I'm not normally a very sociable person, however, Round Square conferences help me create new friendships and make new social interactions. The more Round Square gatherings I attend, the more I find myself asking people about where they're from, and even in my own school, I end up talking to people outside of my year and getting interested in their different heritages.”

Our students’ response to personal interaction with newfound friends from countries and cultures that are different to their own is replicated throughout the Round Square community of schools. The positive impact of personal connections on each individual student is recognised and nurtured by the adults around them, who value the tremendous experiential learning potential.

With collaborative initiatives like the Round Square Discovery Framework, the schools in our network are developing creative approaches that - from the lessons learnt in friendship - support, draw-out and acknowledge each students’ personal discovery of international understanding, and the positive impact this has in terms of their character development through qualities such as compassion and self-awareness.

If we can harness the learning, the real benefit of promoting international friendship as an educational experience is that it needs no promotion. Once they have shared an immersive experience, and friendships are forged, our students will seek to maintain and manage those friendships without the need for adult intervention. In fact quite the opposite. As Ansh Anand from Daly College found, “I never knew that friends from such conferences could get really close to you and you may not realise it at first but if you try and cherish the relationship, it only grows.”

“I had the opportunity to meet so many new and different people,” says Liv Proudfoot from St Cyprian's School, a delegate at this year’s Africa Regional Conference in Kenya.I immediately got on really well with many of them and we shared many laughs and good times together. Even though we all came from very diverse backgrounds, we had all ended up in the same place and it was so great to learn about other people's cultures and hear their stories…. I will certainly keep in contact with them over social media and hopefully I'll meet up with them again in the future.”

As Liv and Ansh suggest, in so many instances, the start of these friendships, and their depth, is established in person, and nurtured remotely. I definitely feel like I've made life-long friends at Aiglon. I am still in touch with my roommate and we Skype everyday,” says Shivikha Shivananda from the Indian High School, Dubai.

We have a great opportunity today to use technology to support us in promoting and celebrating international friendship as a learning experience. We can see in ‘real time’ situations around the world, with tools such as Periscope and Facebook Live, that can help build our empathy and compassion for the daily struggles and successes of others. We can compare and contrast information from different opinion groups, using tools such as YouTube to gather these sources and then interrogate them in the classroom environment. We can debate, engaging with other schools and international friends, through Twitter. We can share; through Whatsapp groups that leapfrog over country boundaries.

In an educational setting, we can make the most of students’ natural inclination to follow-up face-to-face friendship-building using the power and potential of technology and social media to maintain and grow those friendships. By encouraging this in the classroom, and enabling students to learn in an environment that they like to inhabit, perhaps we can help to guide them beyond connectivity to the point of community, and reach a meaningful and long-term level of understanding.