Global Connections: the Benefits of Creating Student & Faculty Connections

Today’s conversation is with Helene Deysel. Helene serves as the International Communication Programme Coordinator at Hendrik Verwoerd High School in Pretoria, South Africa. Since 2006, Helene and her team at HVHS have collaborated with Alterra Global Initiatives to introduce students and teachers on both sides of the Atlantic to one another. And so this program has seen delegations of US and South African students & teaching faculty travel to each other’s countries on interesting, relevant curriculum-linked academic programs.

The South African team has visited the United States to attend a student-led climate change conference – Alterra’s Model Kyoto – at Emory University in Atlanta. They’ve also kicked back at a summer camp in Vermont, and have observed American political and cultural traditions first-hand in Washington DC and New York City. For their part, US students and faculty have visited the HVHS campus for team-building, leadership training, and the sharing of perspectives; HVHS families have welcomed their US peers into their homes for overnight stays.

High school sophomores from one HVHS partner institution – Northfield Mount Hermon School ( – have visited Pretoria several times as part of the NMH students’ “Humanities II: South Africa” course, which offers students the chance to experience South Africa’s contemporary and historical realities up close: Indigenous traditions; colonialism & its legacy; the dynamics of race & class; modernization; the role of faith & religion, particularly in social protest; and the complex blending of cultures. The NMH students and their South African peers address these issues and much more at the HVHS campus every other year. Discussions include comparisons with America’s experience around these abiding challenges, realities, and opportunities.

Another project of interest and merit – to HVHS as to its partners – is Global Connections, a wonderful initiative offering students the chance to engage electronically across the miles using the top-shelf dedicated video lines at the United States embassy in Pretoria. Over the years, this project has involved connecting HVHS students with their US peers and with US journalists & thought leaders via synchronized electronic discussions. The project, recently ended after a decade’s successful run, worked nicely for HVHS; Helene would like to see it continue in another guise.

We recently sat down with Helene to discuss her desire to continue all of these unique global connections. See our questions, and Helene’s replies, here:

Helene: You chair the Hendrik Verwoerd High School (HVHS) Global Youth Initiative. Can you describe your role as chair, and the objectives of this wonderful project?

I am the organizer – the link between the HSHV and the US schools. I organize the dates, and decide on formal and informal topics after consulting my students – and the participating US students and teachers. I coach my students beforehand (during a research/mock debate session) to ensure that students are prepared during the video session with their US peers. I appoint a student facilitator (with leadership skills) to facilitate/chair the video session. During the video session, a US teacher I oversee matters, ensuring that students stick to topics and are non-judgmental of others throughout the process.

Each video conference consists of a formal and an informal section. The objectives during the formal portion of the conference are:

  • Leadership development.
  • The sharing of opinions on global issues at hand.
  • To broaden general knowledge, especially among my own students, as we do not have International Studies or World History as subjects at our school.
  • To discuss the role of youth as tomorrow’s leaders in finding solutions to problems at stake.

During the informal portion of the conference, the objectives are to:

  • Share information about each other’s life styles, cultures, and school environments.
  • Enlighten US students about any misconceptions they might have toward South Africa, and vice-versa.
  • Be worthy ambassadors of our multiracial school and country.

Can you describe how electronic and video-chat communications with American schools have informed these objectives? Which components of the school-to-school relationships that you’ve buildelectronically have been particularly enriching for you as the lead faculty member? Which components have worked best for your students?

We used to have a blog site that was managed by a Supervisor, as well as 2 teachers (US and South African). Students received an assignment/topic to research, and then were asked to answer questions by and present their opinions on the blog. Other students then were able to engage with the lead student in an online discussion. It was monitored by the teachers to ensure that it was non-biased and non-judgmental at all times. This initiatives was a big hit, and a big plus, as students could engage on their own time (i.e., at home, from the school library). That site does not presently exist. Nonetheless, for 10 years now, I have seen my students develop into confident young adults who can pose their opinions on any topic and think on their feet. (I hand-pick my students in grades 8/9 during interviews, and they then remain members of the group until grade 12 to ensures continuity. A few of my students were selected to attend leadership camp in the USA (in Washington DC, Detroit, and California). Not only does this broaden their general knowledge, but they start to read newspapers, listen to news broadcasts, and develop an interest in current affairs around the globe.

You and your school’s assistant principal recently led a group of 8 Hendrik Verwoerd school students to Atlanta for an Alterra-designed student conference on climate change. How did electronic and video-chat communications prepare your students for that seminal event?

The students who were part of the Atlanta group have been members of the HVHS Global Youth Initiative since grade 8. We have discussed climate change on numerous occasions this gave them the ‘pre-knowledge’ they needed to participate actively and meaningfully at Model Kyoto in Atlanta.

What about the curriculum-linked, onsite peer-to-peer sharing with schools (e.g., with Northfield Mount Hermon School) have been particularly valuable to you? How have these discussions made a difference at your school?

The Northfield Mount Hermon School students stay here in Pretoria overnight at with host-parents. Not only do the US students get hands-on experience with our lifestyle and cultures; it enriches our own students’ lives tremendously. We also take the US delegation to visit the Hector Pieterson Museum ( and the Voortrekker Monument (, each of which gives them insight into our past and how far we have come since 1976 the Soweto uprising. The peer-to peer discussions are usually quite insightful, as is the informal socializing that we have at our braai/barbecue lunch activity.

You are looking for new partnerships with US schools. Which types of schools are you looking for, and why?

I am looking for schools with teachers who buy into this program wholeheartedly. I believe that students must know there is a world out there, and that they need to broaden their horizons. The US teachers must want to expose their students to the world beyond America. We as countries have so much in common socially and politically – and we all grapple with the same global issues, such as global warming, fracking, conflict resolution, food security, educational opportunity, and more. The US students must really be inquisitive about the world out there. They must be willing to interact with our students purposefully, discuss global issues actively, conduct background research, and be prepared for each session. This implies that the teacher must also be involved and committed to this process, especially in the early days of this endeavor when growing pains will be at the fore (e.g., internet lines not connecting, student shyness, and more).

If you interested in partnering with Hendrik Verwoerd High School’s (HVHS) Global Youth Initiative, Please contact:

Fungai Kanogoiwa:

Alterra Global Initiatives, President Global Programs

Helene Deysel:

Chair, Hendrik Verwoerd High School, Global Youth Initiative

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