Student exchange expands

COSTA MESA — A stadium packed with screaming students and parents watching rival high school teams battle it out on the football field is how Hollywood often portrays American high school life.

A group of Australian students staying in Costa Mesa were anticipating that kind of experience Wednesday night — minus the pigskin. They planned to be among the spectators as the Estancia and Costa Mesa high school basketball teams squared off in a hoops version of the Battle of the Bell cross-town varsity sports rivalry.

For some of the Australian students, watching a high school game was a first. Experiencing the sports rivalry between the two Costa Mesa campuses also was new to the Aussies, who said that school competition back home is nonexistent.

"I can't wait to watch the Battle of the Bell," said Ajok Marial, 17. "It's going to really fun."

Seven students from Hoppers Crossing Secondary College and Galvin Park Secondary College, both schools in suburban Wyndham near Melbourne, are visiting Costa Mesa through Feb. 4. They are here to get a taste of the American high school experience as part of the Sister-City Education Exchange program between the cities of Costa Mesa and Wyndham.

During the nearly three-week trip, the student ambassadors, as they are called, will learn about the community, its educational system and culture.

Only a little more than a week into the trip, the young Australians have observed many differences between the two cultures — like how seriously American students approach the teenage rite of asking a date to the dance, said Aussie Emma Busst, 16.

It is also easy to find the similarities, she said.

"It's pretty universal how us teenagers tend to communicate," she said, adding, that the two sets of students are still interested in learning each other's slang.

Longtime Costa Mesa resident Sue Smith started the exchange program in 1997 to bring together educators from Estancia and schools in Wyndham. The program expanded in 2005 to include groups of students from both cultures visiting one another every year.

"When we got students involved it took on a life of its own," Smith said. "And it hasn't stopped."

The Australian students arrived Jan. 17 and have been staying with two sets of host families from Estancia.

Since its inception, the U.S. end of the program has been run out of Estancia, but, for the first time this year, Australian students spent a day at rival Costa Mesa High — an experience they were warned about.

Emma said that she and her fellow Aussies had been warned to act neutral.

"Every second question was, 'Who do you like better?'" she said.

The inter-scholastic rivalry is unusual for the Australians, where sports are more community-based and therefore have limited competition among schools, said David Schafer, an Australian woodwork teacher.

Estancia has long partnered with Hoppers Crossing, hosting and sending over students every year, as well as hosting delegations from other Wyndham schools when they showed interest, Smith said.

This year, though, Galvin Park is trying to establish a relationship with Costa Mesa High, Schafer said.

Estancia has gained so much through the program — which has become ingrained in the school's identity — that its students want Costa Mesa High and Galvin Park students to have the same experience, Smith said.

The program changes the students who are a part of it, whether they travel to the far side of the globe or host a student in their home, Smith said.

Lifelong friendships and bonds not just between the students, but also their respective families, are forged, Smith said.

"Just knowing you have friends on the other side of the world … is priceless," said Estancia student Christy Brown, 15.

Emma already plans on having one of her American hosts come stay with her, and so do many of the other students from Down Under. Even if they don't get to visit in person, they know they can stay in touch.

"Facebook," Ajok and Jessica Silcock, 15, said in unison.

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