Mt. Kenya Academy exchange program creates international friendships

The origins of the Mt. Kenya exchange program trace back to twelve years ago, when Westminster graduate Sarah Hawkins’ parents Scott and Susan Hawkins, visited Kenya with a group of Westminster students. Inspired by the Mount Kenya Junior School they visited, they resolved to build a high school. With this idea, the Mount Kenya Senior School was born, funded by the efforts of the Hawkins family and Cindy Candler, another Westminster parent. The exchange program between Westminster high school students and the Mt. Kenyan senior school began in 2006, marking the beginning of a strong relationship between the two schools.

This year, sophomores Janiah Beazer, Taylor Cole, Austin Dhillon, Jordan Flowers, Patricia Merlino, Alex Thorne and Samra Wolde-Tensae participated in the seventh Westminster-Mt. Kenya Academy exchange, accompanied by faculty leaders Jennifer Lalley and David McMahan. After applying to the program during the fall semester, they attended weekly sessions to prepare themselves for their trip in March.

“I mainly decided to go apply to the Mt. Kenya exchange program because I wanted to experience a new culture, “ said Flowers. “I wanted to experience something outside of the world I know in Atlanta.”

Their trip to Kenya began the week of spring break and lasted two weeks. While in Kenya, they lived in the dormitories of the senior school, fully immersing themselves in the lives of the Kenyan students. During the day, they attended classes such as Swahili, Chemistry, and Kenyan history. When not in school, they took trips to various sites around Nyeri. Some highlights included a safari, a visit to a flower farm, the Kikuyu village and Batian’s view, which included a ropes course and zip-line. The trip turned out to be a great success, and when the students arrived back in Atlanta they enthusiastically shared their experiences with both students and faculty.

“Last year, I was involved with the program by being a host, and I really enjoyed getting to know the students from Kenya. Naturally, I signed up for the trip this year, because of the great experience I had last year, “ said Merlino. “My favorite part of trip was the safari—you can’t go to the Africa and not go on a safari! I think that it would be worthwhile to get a chance to have a conversation with one of the exchange students. Not only are they very interesting people, but you’ll also find that they are more like you that you’d think.”

One of the main objectives is to emphasize the term “exchange” because it is an exchange program, not a service project.

“From an American student’s perspective, the most common image of Africa is of a place to do community service,” said Dhillon. “This trip gave me a chance to go there for a different reason that was based on showing what we had in common, rather than focusing on our differences.”

The trip also brought the group closer together throughout the experience, as they spent time together exploring a new world. The formation of new friendships with the Kenyan students greatly impacted them as well.

“I was really surprised by how well I got to know everyone there in the short time we stayed at the school,” said Thorne. “I genuinely felt close to almost everyone there, especially the ones who came to America to stay with us. I think people who haven’t participated in the exchange don’t realize how quickly you can make lifelong friends.”

The group of Kenyan exchange students cheerfully arrived at Westminster on Wed., April 11. Each student lived with two host families, one for each week of their visit. Similar to the experiences of the Westminster students in Kenya, they participated in a range of classes, including English, Ceramics, and Chorus. Outside of class, they toured various attractions in Atlanta.

“I love the baseball games. We don’t have baseball in Kenya, so it was a new sport that we learned, and we had lots of fun with it,” said exchange student Kate Ahn. “We also enjoyed our visit to the aquarium, it was beautiful! Westminster is so huge, and the campus is lovely—you also have great food, even though you guys don’t think so!”

With smiling faces, each Kenyan student excitedly spoke about their first experience in America.

“My favorite part of this experience is getting to meet so many new people,” said Mwenda Mworia. “Everyone is so kind, and everyone always says hi!”

Fellow exchange student Ernest Shabbz agrees.

“I love America and the city here. The school is lovely, and everyone is so nice and polite to you,” said Shaabz. “I think it’s good for students to go on exchange programs so that they get a feel for the other side of the world.”

The Westminster and Mt. Kenya students parted ways on April 25, but their newly formed relationships continue to remind them of the life-changing experience they participated in.