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  • Rachel Kolko

Walls Once Hosted Many Exchange Students Every Year: What Happened?

Thongsongkrit (upper row, fourth from right) and McFarlane (bottom row, right) played on the rec soccer team known as the “Gremlins” together / Via Daniel McFarlane

In 2020, 12 exchange students from around the world walked the School Without Walls hallways, played on Walls’ sports teams, and explored the city with their native Washingtonian friends. When the pandemic hit, these students were abruptly sent home. Since then, Walls has only hosted one exchange student. He may have been the last one.

For decades, relying on Walls’ partnerships with organizations like the American Field Service (AFS), students traveled from around the globe to take their place in the Walls classroom each year.

Exchange students would typically come to Walls for the entirety of their junior or senior year to take classes alongside other Penguins, while staying with a local host family.

“It’s really great to be able to get the chance to meet someone from another culture, and to not only meet them but to become close with them,” said physics teacher Harrison Davis, who graduated from Walls in 2014.

Before the pandemic, Walls was one of the most popular schools in D.C. for hosting exchange students. When Mr. Davis was a senior, Walls had 16 exchange students come through AFS alone. Former Walls Principal Richard Trogisch “was a very strong proponent of exchange,” said Kathryn Moore, class of 2024 counselor and former exchange student counselor, “so he would accept as many [students] as possible.”

During his senior year, Mr. Davis got to know a handful of the 16 exchange students well.

He befriended two of the students, one from Spain and the other from Belgium, through his crew team. “Oh, the music they listen to, oh man,” he recalled, “the two of them were really into EDM and I remember them showing us so much of this European music scene that we’d never heard about, like music festivals that they’d go to back home and all this cool stuff.”

Music was only one of the many things Mr. Davis learned from his international peers. “One of them actually was a close friend of mine,” he said. “We had dinner at my house at one time and my mom does a lot of work in Eastern Europe, and he was from the Czech Republic, so they had a lot of conversations about food in the Czech Republic, which was pretty amusing.”

One of Mr. Davis’ students, Daniel McFarlane (‘24) had a similar experience with exchange students — eight years later. Throughout his life, McFarlane’s family has hosted three exchange students, two of whom attended Walls for a year, including Napat Thongsongkirt.

Napat “Pat” Thongsongkrit may likely have been the last exchange student Walls will ever host. Coming all the way from Bangkok, Thailand, for the 2022-2023 school year, Thongsongkrit was the only exchange student to attend Walls that year, and the first one since the pandemic.

“I thought it was kind of interesting, like, the year before COVID [2018-2019] I think there were like seven AFS students,” McFarlane said. Post-pandemic, it was a different story. “We had to kind of fight for just one AFS student to come to Walls.”

McFarlane described the overall experience positively, explaining that he welcomed Thongsongkrit into his family. “It was like having a brother of the same age as me from a different country for a year.” When McFarlane went to Florida to visit family, Thongsongkrit went with them. “Even if I didn’t want to get close with him, it would have been difficult [not to].”

Along with McFarlane, lots of other Walls students got to know Thongsongkrit. “Pat had a lot of friends in our class,” McFarlane said.

“From what I know, people were able to learn a lot about Thailand, where he’s from, and I was also able to learn a lot.”

In fact, McFarlane said he learned from all of the exchange students his family hosted. “I think having exchange students at schools can be really helpful, just as a way to exchange culture.” In 2014, his family hosted Jax, a student from China, who spent the school year at Washington Latin Public Charter School. “He taught us how to make dumplings.” McFarlane said. “It was a pretty extensive process, but that was a lot of fun, like, spending a day just making dumplings with him.”

Jaap, the Dutch student they hosted in 2018, taught him about the significance of field hockey in the Netherlands.

Learning these kinds of details was one of the main reasons Walls used to host so many students, Ms. Moore explained. “That was sort of part of Walls’ mission, right, to create global citizens,” she said. “Our students could learn about the [exchange students’] culture, their country, and then [they would] hopefully also inspire our students to do exchanges afterward.”

But with a recent DCPS policy change, Walls students may never get another chance to experience this cultural exchange

“[The policy change] basically said that we could not accept exchange students without exhausting our waitlist,” Ms. Moore said. She theorized that DCPS did not want to set aside a number of spots in the Walls classroom for exchange students that could be going to D.C. residents. For the class of 2027, the waitlist to get into Walls was approximately 1,850 students long.

But, even with this restrictive policy, there still may be a way for exchange students to come to Walls. “I guess in theory, a student — if they were placed early enough with a host family — in theory, I believe they could go through the same admissions process [as D.C. applicants],” Ms. Moore said. Still, she said it was unlikely. “They’re not placed that early in the process to then be able to go through the typical admissions process.”

To complete the admissions process through MySchoolDC, prospective exchange students would have to start the application process in December — about seven months before they would move in for their exchange year. For comparison, most exchange students used to apply only a few weeks before the start of their exchange year.

“It’s unfortunate,” Ms. Moore said. “[But] I understand the policy. I’d understand if I was a parent with a child on the waitlist.”

McFarlane offered a compromise. “I think hosting a couple of exchange students (maybe three or four per year) would be a great way to give everyone ideas about spending time abroad,” he said. “I had a great time being Pat’s host brother and it seemed like a lot of other people at Walls valued having Pat in the community. DCPS is definitely missing out by making it impossible for exchange students to attend certain schools.”

The exchange students Walls did get to host have left lasting impacts on the community.

“They kept in touch, and you know, some of them would even come back.” Ms. Moore said. McFarlane says he still keeps in touch with Thongsongkrit, and even sees Jaap, the Dutch exchange student, in person annually. Mr. Davis still follows some of the exchange students from his class on Facebook. He is also sad to see the change in policy. “

We talked so much about how this school has got this humanities focus and we’re global citizens, and part of doing that right is meeting people from other places,” he said. “[Seeing] how you’re similar to or different from these people and, and celebrating those things, so I think it’s a big loss.”


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