As we approach our spring break, we are reminded of what would typically be a time for student travel abroad. Though we are soon to experience our second consecutive spring break with no student trips in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can reflect on O’Neal’s long history of giving its students opportunities for global awareness and immersion into other cultures.
Learning the Language
The first foreign (now world) language teacher was hired in 1972, for the School’s second year. It coincided with O’Neal’s expansion of 7th and 8th grades. David Hill, originally from Erie, Pennsylvania; majored in French from the University of Louisville with also a year of post graduate study at Université de Besançon. Mr. Hill taught French to students in 6th, 7th and 8th grades. French was the only world language taught through the early 80’s.
In 1986, new Headmaster John Cheska had a vision to introduce students to many different languages. Mr. Cheska had recently served as headmaster for an academy in Greece for a few years. In a newspaper article, Cheska communicates his view that “Business people and leaders of the future will need a working knowledge of other cultures and ability to communicate in two or three languages.”
The program was to grow in stages over two years. It would begin with kindergarten students learning songs and games in French and German. It would escalate to conversational use in grades one – three. In grades four and five French or German would be spoken exclusively during study periods. He was not one for memorizing verb conjugations, but he wanted students to think in another language.
During this time, the upper school students could take Russian as a class, along with the offering of a Russian club. In fact, in 1988, O’Neal students visited St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) for a spring break trip. A trip to Russia before the fall of Communism could not have been easy.
Now students are introduced to Spanish starting in PreK3 and it is expanded to French in the Middle School. Students can take up to to five levels of Spanish or French including Advanced Placement courses. Other select world languages can be taken online through the School’s online offering: One Schoolhouse.
Through the years, many trips abroad have happened. French teacher Lyn Cagle joined O’Neal full time in 1997 and was active with taking students to different countries. Michael Norman, who recently passed away in August 2020, joined O’Neal right after graduating from Duke University in 2002. He taught Spanish and drama. Madame and Señor would take students on two-week trips starting in Barcelona and ending along the coast of south France. They often hosted individual trips as well to Spanish or French speaking countries. “When Michael Norman was hired is when everything started to sync together,” says Madame Cagle.
When Richard Catania was hired as Head of Upper School in 2010 the true exchange experience took hold. A French native, Catania felt that students needed immersion into the culture and the language as opposed to simply visiting tourist spots. In an interview with The Pilot he expressed how the program’s success would depend on maintaining relationships and support from the community.
It’s more than being able to tolerate a culture. You have to go beyond that…It’s a commitment for our entire community. We are trying to promote this kind of experience. We are educating citizens of the world.
The exchange program began with two O’Neal Upper School students attending school and staying with host families in Vigo, Spain for one month in the summer. This was followed by semester studies abroad in France and Spain. In the meantime, O’Neal was hosting individual exchange students from Germany, Spain and France.
In 2012, the French exchange program by way of groups began and in a bold way – with middle school students! During O’Neal’s two-week spring break in March of 2012, nine middle school students, three upper school students and Madame Cagle (then World Languages Department Chair) traveled to Pont d’Abbé, Brittany, France where they stayed with individual families and attended school at École Saint-Gabriel. In a press release prior to the trip, Madame Cagle states:
I am so proud of our students for their courage, enthusiasm and pioneer spirit. They will be completely immersed in the French language and culture as they live with host families and attend French school. Taking part in our first exchange program with O’Neal’s sister school, will be a defining experience for them.
The exchange later moved to eastern France at Collège St. Michel in Bourgoin-Jallieu. Students from France are hosted by O’Neal families for two weeks typically in February and O’Neal’s students would travel to France in June for two weeks including homestays. For seven years this exchange has transpired. O’Neal and St. Michel students collaborate on specific projects each year. These would include presentations on Paris monuments, learning traditional French songs, creating a storyboard on La Maison d’Izieu, where Jewish children were sequestered during World War II among many other topics.
In 2014, with much work from Head of School John Elmore, O’Neal started to establish a partnership with Zhuzhou Foreign Language School and Nanfang High School in the Hunan Province of China. The partnership stemmed from the Hunan-North Carolina Sister State relationship and the Zhijiang-Pinehurst, Zhuzhou-Durham Sister City relationships all formed under the influence of the late North Carolina Senator Harris Blake and is administered by the Carolina China Council.
2nd Lt. Robert Hoyle Upchurch was a native of High Falls, NC and was a World War II Flying Tiger whose plane crashed in the Hunan Province of China. The sister state/city relationships were formed on account of Lt. Hoyle’s story.
Through the help of the Carolina China Council, O’Neal’s partnership with China’s schools was made possible. O’Neal hosted an event to honor Dr. Lian Xie, president of the Council, with the Governor’s Appreciation Award. O’Neal later hosted the screening of the documentary film “Unforgotten – In Memory of the Flying Tigers”.
Students from China have visited O’Neal and have stayed with O’Neal families and attended classes in 2015, 2017 and 2019. A small group of O’Neal students traveled to China for a reciprocal experience in 2016.
During this time, via the Carolina China Council as well as New Oasis Host Family Program, several Chinese students attended O’Neal from their sophomore year through matriculation while staying with host families.
A student exchange from Spain happened in 2019 with 13 students from the Colegio FEM in Madrid. It was not the first exchange trip from Spain, but it was the beginning of what is hoped to be a strong relationship with our Spanish counterparts.
John Anderson ‘16 graduated from Centre College in Kentucky with a major in political science and a minor in international studies. While in college, John had many internships, one of which was in the American Embassy in Ethiopia. He is now in Germany for a gap period before entering law school at USC-Columbia in 2022. John participated in the first exchange trip to Brittany as well as the trip to China. He went on to spend a year in South Africa winning the Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (KL YES) Abroad Scholarship with the Department of State while in O’Neal’s Upper School.
John reflects on how O’Neal influenced his activities after graduating.
The trip to Brittany allowed me to stay with another family outside of the country which helped easing into being comfortable in someone else’s home. O’Neal’s faculty is excellent. They are globally minded and they think bigger than just what surrounds them. They come from different places in and outside of the country; they are open to international travel. Mrs. Hancock (then college counselor), helped to prepare me for my interview for the KL YES Scholarship. My stay in South Africa made me more independent, more confident and helped me to build life-long relationships. O’Neal went out of its way to counsel me having spent a year in South Africa in making sure that I still graduated on time. The flexibility was very much appreciated.
O’Neal alumni are living as far as Australia. They have built a school in an African village. Alumni have provided medical services to villages in need. Others are teaching world languages in high schools and universities. Many are benefiting from their global learning with their corporate careers.
In a blog titled “The Importance of International Exposure”, World Language Department Chair Heather Weeks states,
I would argue that international exposure is imperative for modern students. Whether it be enrolling in a global issues elective, participating with Model United Nations, hosting an exchange student, or traveling abroad, students will gain invaluable worldly experiences. We are reminded that top corporations cross international boundaries. Those companies seek dynamic employees with the ability to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and creativity beyond a singular worldview.
Global awareness and experiences are constant at O’Neal but they show differently through time. From service projects raising funds to provide water sources to third world villages, to learning Chinese/Mandarin in lower school after school clubs, to lunchtime Japanese sessions in the Upper School, and a trip to Costa Rica with a focus on environmental science and culture; learning compassion, tolerance, and understanding about the world around us is always present.
Falcons Fly to 50
O’Neal is excited to share its history with readers as it quickly nears its 50th year in educating and cultivating youth in becoming successful, effective contributors to communities large and small. The official celebration starts school year 2021/2022. This weekly blog will focus on different aspects of the School as it grew through the years. With every entry, there is just as much more information to gather than what is already written. Readers who have been a part of the O’Neal community are encouraged to reach out and share their O’Neal memories. It is with great hope that the efforts of many in contributing information and photography can be published into a book for reflection and reference as the School continues to prosper for the next 50 years.
Please send your memoirs and photos to:
The O’Neal School
c/o Kathy Taylor, Director of Communications
P.O. Box 290
Southern Pines, NC 28388