Despite pandemic, exchange students attend U-High classes on Zoom


Provided by Dinah D'Antoni and Tom Rossiter

Students from Argentina participating in the Spanish Exchange program visited U-High classes virtually.

Grace Holleb, Health and Wellness Editor

Students like Maitena Van Houtte from the Instituto de Enseñanza Superior en Lenguas Vivas “Juan Ramon Fernandez” School imagined the experience to include walking into a city of skyscrapers, bustling people and deep-dish pizza. Instead, she is currently still in Buenos Aires, but thanks to Zoom breakout rooms in each of Spanish teacher Dinah D’Antoni’s classes, Maitena is forming connections with even more U-High students than she might have had she physically visited Chicago. 

While the Spanish exchange program normally allows students to practice another language and learn about another culture, students from Argentina visited U-High classes virtually this year due to the pandemic. 

We were already dreaming about coming to Chicago and the exchange, so it was really sad when COVID stopped it.”

— Maitena Van Houtte

The pandemic stopped U-High students from traveling to Argentina last summer and the Argentine students from visiting in October, yet Ms. D’Antoni, coordinator of the exchange, wanted to find a way for students to still meet and connect. 

“How can I still create certain opportunities to reach across the distance?” Ms. D’Antoni said she asked herself.  

Many Argentine students lost hope in the idea of even meeting U-High students, but are happy with the opportunity this new “exchange” gives them, according to Maitena.

“We were already dreaming about coming to Chicago and the exchange,” Maitena said, “so it was really sad when COVID stopped it.” 

Instead of only inviting students to participate who were scheduled to visit in Argentina, Ms. D’Antoni said she wanted to have everyone involved. 

She invited exchange students to come to each of her Spanish classes. 

“She sent us into breakout rooms, two kids from there, two from here,” Hannah Maxcy, a sophomore in Spanish 4A, said. 

Some of the topics students talked about were the restrictions in Buenos Aires, personal experiences with remote learning and the difference in cultures. 

Principal Paul Beekmeyer came to the first meeting to welcome the exchange students. In classes, students took turns conversing in Spanish and English. 

“We were talking about the difference between our schools,” senior Alexandra Nehme said. “I learned that they have a very different school structure than me. They are with the same group of people for classes, whereas we’re always switching classes. We talked about everyday topics as well.”

Alexandra said she thinks it’s fun to take a break from regular class and meet new people, and was surprised with how well the exchange students spoke English.

For Maitena, practicing English is a priority, but developing friendships is even more exciting. 

“Also we really want to make friends,” Maitena said. “If we get to know each other in person and meet each other it’s going to be amazing. Our teachers told us you end up feeling like family on the regular exchange. We want to meet different people than us.”