From exchange participant to host: our interview with Suzanna Jemsby
Please introduce yourself.
Suzanna Jemsby: I am Suzanna Jemsby, Head of School at the Galloway School in Atlanta, Gerogia. I’ve been in my role for six years. Interestingly enough, I moved to the United States from Germany 18 years ago on a J-1 visa to work as a high school principal at the Atlanta International School through the Cordell Hull Foundation.
Was this The Galloway School’s first experience hosting a J-1 intern?
SJ: This is the first one in my time. When the request [to host Soroth] came across my desk, I think I responded because I knew J-1 and it was a no-brainer. He’s coming from a part of the world which is hard for us to access and he had a very interesting story. He was coming with knowledge of school leadership, which is also unusual. I thought he could teach us a lot, and he certainly did, and by the same token, he might be able to get something out of his experience with us. We are extremely well-resourced as a school compared to his school system, so he could go back and share some of what he learned with us.
What do you think are some of the key takeaways that Soroth will be able to bring back to his school in Cambodia?
SJ: So much of it was unthinkable in his setting. The U.S. being a highly individualistic society, and Cambodia on a very different part of the spectrum, with an emphasis on group identity and a community approach to things. I think he was blown away that teachers really get to choose much of what they want to teach and when they teach it and how to teach it and what resources they’re going to use. I think he saw the value of what we’re doing. I think he’ll go back and try and disrupt the conversation and bring more of his ideas into the conversation.
[Soroth] looked up to me as this person who could make all these things happen. He feels as if he’s less of a player. He doesn’t even know if he’s going back to be a principal or if he’s going to reassigned to something else, and that would be unthinkable here. The rights of the individual are protected so much more in the States.
How do you think that your school community has been impacted by having Soroth as a part of it for a semester?
SJ: Well, he’s first of all, a very kind human being. He helped people on so many fronts, and on the empathy front first of all. Not everybody is accustomed to dealing with folks who don’t speak English as their first language every day. So it was good for them to remember that piece, and that rapid-fire English with lots of idiomatic phrases isn’t going to work with him.
Soroth also brought to life a part of the world that people don’t know very well. He was involved in an elective with the head of community engagement at the school, and talked about his childhood and interactions with the Khmer Rouge. He brought history alive and brought a face to something that’s very hard for young people to comprehend.
Then of course there’s the piece that he was able to bring in from his schooling experience. Particularly with the younger kids, Soroth was able to impact in a big way. He would share some of what Cambodian kids do at their age. What do P.E. lessons look like? Do they have big fancy gyms to play in? No, they go out with their classroom teacher and perhaps kick a ball around, these kinds of things.
Soroth mentioned in his post that he had been studying English in school for fifteen years. Coming from a developing country, there may be a sense that in order to advance, you must have a global mindset. How does The Galloway School prepare students for this increasingly globalized world, and how do you think having an international J-1 intern can help advance that?
SJ: I’m a linguist by trade, so it was my first big goal for the school when I arrived six years ago to relook at how we teach languages. I believe it’s a tool; I believe it’s a way to understanding others in the world. It’s not something you learn about in a book and tick off with an AP at the end of grade 12. I think we do kids a disservice if they’re not competent in two languages by the time they finish school. Of course, many kids are getting close to that, but there are also a lot of kids who have decided that they’re not capable of it.
When you think about learning an Asian language in particular, it’s a difficult thing to do. [Soroth] really modeled fearlessness in this respect. He wasn’t always easy to comprehend at the beginning, even for someone who, as I consider myself, a sympathetic listener for people who don’t speak English as their first language. He made tremendous strides.
Do you think your school will host additional J-1 students in the future? Do you think it was an overall positive experience for students and the staff?
SJ: I think it was a positive experience. I’m actually leaving the school at the end of this year so it’s going to be up to the next head. I will make a strong case for doing it though, Soroth was awesome.
His own mother passed away the week of his high school graduation and he missed the ceremony. So we decided to actually have him “graduate” from Galloway. We printed up a certificate, gave him a cap and gown and he walked right through the entire faculty and everybody went crazy. I know he was very taken by this. I know he touched every single person on my faculty and staff in some way, shape, or form.
We had him spend time with every grade at the school so he started with the three-year-olds and we had him advance through the school and he finished with grade twelve. So he went through like a student, although in a condensed time. He went on field trips with the three-year-olds, he did spelling with the sixth graders, he talked about the Khmer Rouge with the seventh graders, shadowed a tenth grader, so he did a bit of everything. I remember saying to him “be everywhere! I want you to make the most of this opportunity.”
Overall it’s been really interesting and I hope the school continues. We all just wanted [Soroth] to have the happiest memories of Galloway and I think he will, there’s no doubt in my mind.