Tom Van de Voort, a 14-year-old, Dutch student who attends Oostvaarders College and lives in Almere, a city near Amsterdam, had never been to the United States. When he arrived in New York he was anxious to see the sights and learn about the culture, but like most newcomers he also began to take note of the subtle differences between this country and his own.
“On every corner there is a hot dog stand and we don't have those in Holland,” he explained. “The pizza slices are much, much bigger and tasty. Even the hamburgers are bigger.”
Ram Bhadra, a student at the Baccalaureate School for Global Education in Astoria, had never been to Holland and was surprised to learn that gay marriage is legal there as is smoking marijuana, in certain designated areas. But for the most part, he discovered that teenagers in the two countries have a lot in common.
“The only big difference is in our language. Our thinking and our lifestyles are very similar,” he said, adding, “It was good to share our experiences. I learned so many things about their culture.”
The two were brought together as part of the “Richness Within” project; a program funded by the Dutch Ministry of Education and the American Embassy, which flew in Dutch high school students and allowed them to spend a week with their American counterparts — living with their host families, observing and participating in classroom discussions and working together to create a video project addressing issues like tolerance, diversity and citizenship.
The program partnered 25 students from three different high schools in the Netherlands: Oostvaarders College, College Vos and Libanon Lyceum with 25 students from three different American high schools: Collegiate High School in Jamaica, the Baccalaureate School for Global Education in Astoria and the Metropolitan Learning Center in Bloomfield, Conn.
The goal is to find out what young people think about the differences and similarities in their values, to hear what observations they have made and to learn if they have any practical recommendations for policy makers.
The timing coincided with the city’s 400th anniversary of its discovery by Henry Hudson, who sailed here as an agent of the Dutch government.
“I hope it will open the students and will help them as they grow older and as they go towards studying or working abroad or working in an international environment,” said project organizer Marcia Joosen, the communications manager for the European Platform, a Dutch organization that works on behalf of the ministry of education and internationalization in Dutch schools. “I hope they gain a knowledge of both the country and the people here in America but also an attitude that will allow them to cooperate with other countries and other cultures.”
Ro-Jean Binda, a student at Queens Collegiate, quickly befriended her partner Charissa Pinas, a student at College Vos, and the two spent their first days together sightseeing in Manhattan, visiting the M&M’s store and going for a manicure.
“It was cool to have someone new in our family and to learn about their culture and have them learn about our culture as well,” Binda said. “I loved it. It’s been great.”
“I loved seeing Times Square at night with all the lights and all the shops,” Pinas said. “It was really beautiful.”
Prior to actually meeting, the students exchanged ideas about the similarities and differences between their two countries online and throughout the program they continued to post journal entries documenting their experiences.
After arriving in New York on Sunday the Dutch students spent the first several days asking Americans about various topics such as tolerance and filmed their responses. The one-minute video clips were then incorporated into their final projects.
The task challenged students to formulate precise questions, allowed them to further engage in dialogue with American citizens and provided them with the opportunity to use technology like Flip cameras.
According to Jan Sluimer, the principal at Oostvaarders College, one of his students was particularly surprised by what she learned from a guard at Collegiate High School.
“Yesterday one of our students interviewed one of the security officers and she said ‘Tolerance. There is absolutely zero tolerance here in the United States. Everywhere there is security. Everywhere your bag is checked. Everywhere your body is scanned. We are not tolerant. We are afraid of terrorism,’” Sluimer recounted.
On Thursday and Friday, all the students convened at Collegiate, where they broke up into groups and conducted research, exploring topics such as gay marriage, gun control, education and immigration, to determine what the two countries could learn from each other.
Founded just two years ago, Collegiate is an international affairs college preparatory school, located within Jamaica High School. In keeping with one of its primary goals which is to seek out global partnerships, officials at the school were excited to have their students participate in the “Richness Within” project.
“I’m hoping that they will see many similarities,” said Jaime Anne Dubai, founding principal of Collegiate. “There are some ideas and values that Americans and Dutch both hold dear. I’m hoping that they will see beyond the differences and see some of the similarities because I feel the similarities are what you can grow and build on for the future.”
Posing the question “What is the true price of a gun,” one group of students noted that in America, where citizens have the right to bear arms, almost 40 percent of homicides are gun-related, but in the Netherlands where gun use is restricted to shooting ranges and for hunting purposes, the rate is less than 3 percent.
“In the U.S., we need to adopt stricter gun control policies because if you are using a gun for protection you are really only protecting yourself from other people with guns,” concluded Daniel Fitzpatrick, a student from Metropolitan Learning Center.
Thijs de Jong, a student from Libanon Lyceum, agreed. “I don’t think there shouldn’t be any guns at all, only for police and the military,” he said.
Citing a quote from President Barack Obama, which states: “If you quit on school — you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country,” the students noted that in America, where you have to stay in school until the age of 16, the dropout rate is 30 percent. However in the Netherlands, where students must stay in school until the age of 18, the dropout rate is only 13 percent.
Gay marriage is also an area where the two countries differ. In the United States, gay marriage is only legal in five states, but the practice is widely accepted throughout the Netherlands.
“It’s a very medieval way of thinking for such a developed country,” Yannic Moelien of Libanon Lyceum said of the ban in 45 other states (including New York). “I think you make people happy by giving them the right to choose.”
The students attributed the lack of acceptance to a lack of education and noted that 85 percent of teachers in the United States reportedly oppose integrating lesbian, gay and bisexual themes into their curriculum.
“American students need to start learning to accept different groups of people and that really starts with parents and teachers,” said Colleen Hussey of the Metropolitan Learning Center.
Hans van Buuren, a teacher at Libanon Lyceum, was pleased to see the students developing fast friendships and working so closely together.
“The warmth that surrounds them is so huge,” he said. “It’s made me quite emotional.”
After completing their projects the students recommended that government officials address the need for tolerance by speaking openly and often to citizens, acknowledge multicultural needs by creating more facilities for diversity and increase educational opportunities to learn from other cultures. They also encouraged officials to fight diligently against racism and to promote the worldwide legalization of gay marriage.
The projects will be posted on the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN), which will allow others to view the results of the collaboration.
Hudson did not land in Queens, which only became part of the city in 1898, and beyond the “Richness Within” project, the borough has largely been left out of the 400th anniversary celebration. But Hudson’s exploration of the region led to the establishment of New Amsterdam and the New Netherland colony — later New York — paving the way for a long-lasting friendship between the United States and the Netherlands.