January 7, 2011
In a first of its kind collaboration, the t. Mary’s London Program, the U.S. Embassy in London, and the Benjamin Franklin House in London worked on a project that builds a cultural bridge between American and British students.
The Benjamin Franklin House in London is the only existing house where Franklin lived. It is considered a Tier One historical site in Britain, the highest historical designation granted by the British government.
Designing the Benjamin Franklin Project was the result of serendipity. Larry Hufford, faculty member and on-site coordinator of the St. Mary’s London Program, invited me to join him for a pint at a local pub with U.S. Foreign Service officer Ariel (Passanisi) Vaagen (M.A. ’06 in International Relations), who is the Assistant Cultural Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in London, and Stephen Wilson, Director of Education at the Franklin House.
While talking with Ariel, I described my Benjamin Franklin’s London course. After hearing about it, she proposed that St. Mary’s students participate with a Saturday morning educational project at the Benjamin Franklin House that is part of on-going cultural programming efforts by the embassy. The 15 and 16-year-old students attend a state school in South London, and their backgrounds are so diverse that they come from homes where families speak more than 60 languages. A group of 25 London students – all female – attended the project. I selected five St. Mary’s students to attend and facilitate discussion on the diplomatic role that Benjamin Franklin played in negotiations with Great Britain and France as well as in the writing of the U.S. Constitution. The St. Mary’s students participating were Julie Forbus, John Matye, Chrystalla Georghiou, Jennifer Jones, and Joaquin Toranzo.
Stephen Wilson and Ariel Vaagen were exceedingly pleased with the level of engagement of the students. According to Stephen, there had never been this level of participation in prior sessions, and he attributed this success to the presence of St. Mary’s students who were able to answer questions and engage the students in dialogue. Ariel reported on the results of this program to the Cultural Attaché, with the goal of developing an ongoing relationship between the Benjamin Franklin House, St. Mary’s University, and the U.S. Embassy.
The U.S. Embassy in London has never partnered with American college students before to serve as cultural ambassadors. I am very proud that St. Mary’s was selected to be the first and proud of the professionalism of our students.