Henderson wins Friend of the Exchange Award


Carolyn Henderson with the Friend of the Exchange Award on October 14. (Photo by Emma Brignall).

Emma Brignall

Carolyn Henderson received the Friend of the Exchange Award for the 35th anniversary of the Newton-Beijing Jingshan School Exchange Program Reunion on Thursday, October 14. Henderson was one of the two exchange teachers from Newton North on the original exchange trip to China in 1986. 

The award recognizes someone who has made great contributions to the exchange program. Henderson dedicated much of her time to spreading the exchange across the United States and China.

“Thirty-five years ago she went on that first exchange program, and she has been the rock of the program ever since,” said former Exchange Committee chair Ken Hamilton.

Henderson served as co-chair of the Exchange Committee for ten years. She worked on developing textbooks and teaching materials at the Jingshan school to spread across China, expanding the curriculum in Newton to include more about Asia, helping to establish a speaker series focused on China, and promoting the study of Chinese in schools across the United States. During the program, she hosted Jingshan faculty in her home, and she later helped to promote Jingshan-style exchanges throughout the U.S. and China.

“We can’t do justice to all Carolyn has done for the exchange,” said Hamilton.

The exchange program started in 1986, when a small group of students and two teachers travelled to China for four months. More recently, this program has been running annually, with students from China spending half of the school year here before changing places with North students.

North students come back with a unique experience and exposure to a different language and culture. Students live with host families and have numerous opportunities for engagement, including learning to make dumplings, lessons in Tai Chi or martial arts, and playing the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese instrument.

“If you were bored, you just stepped outside the door and something interesting would happen,” said Henderson.

“It was the first time I’d ever lived in a city,” said Bryan Withal, who went on the exchange as a student in 1999. “It gave you a lot of time to think, because everyone was speaking in Chinese and we were not fluent.”

Nancy Fernstenacher attended the program as an exchange teacher in 1995. Her host family made sure her comforts were met, beyond any expectations she had. “The generosity was just amazing,” she said. “They drank hot tea with every meal; when they asked me what I liked to drink and I said coke, they bought me a whole case!”

The two groups formed strong bonds during their time away. “Our host families became our second home,” said Henderson.

The exchange has persevered through unhealthy and politically tense circumstances. After events such as Tiananmen Square, the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, and the outbreak of SARS, the program has rebounded and brought the two schools in contact again. 

“It continues because of the mutual goodwill and genuine friendship between us,” according to Henderson.

Attendees were optimistic that the program would continue, as it has been recently halted due to the pandemic. “We have a passion to make the Jingshan program continue. It has had challenges before and it has always resulted in the program being stronger and better than ever,” said Superintendent David Fleishman.

“We’re still in contact,” added Hamilton. “We will reconstitute this exchange when the time is over.”

Hamilton says programs like this remind everyone of the cultural barriers people can jump, given the opportunity. “We’re trying to keep the community aware of what we’re doing and how important it is,” according to Hamilton.

“After four months, they are not really travellers,” said Chinese language teacher Star Lew, about the teenage participants. “They live in the culture, go through challenges, and come out stronger.” High school offers a particularly impactful time for students to explore a place different from the one they are used to. “The younger the kids could encounter differences and cultural contrast, the more open-minded they may become. It’s a life-long skill to be open-minded and reflective.”