LAURINBURG — Many Scotland County teenagers cling to the thought of one day venturing far from the confines of their hometown, but the 13 high school students leaving Laurinburg today were the lucky few selected to come here from an applicant pool of more than 80 in Laurinburg’s Scottish sister city.
Between high school students in Scotland County and Oban, 26 students participated in the 21st annual Sister Cities Exchange. The 13 Scotland County students visited Oban for two weeks in June, with the reciprocal visit by the Scots ending today.
“This is a lovely group we have together and I’m going to be so sad when they leave us,” said Scotland High junior Mayghan Campbell, who counted Oban’s nexus of sea and mountain as one of the trip’s most exotic aspects.
While in their host countries, students from both sides of the Atlantic share their culture in elementary schools. In Scotland, outings include visits to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the Isle of Iona, along with plenty of time on the water. In North Carolina, Scotland County’s Scottish guests visit the state’s extremes from the mountains to the beach, with time in between at the Scotland County Highland Games.
For Oban High School sixth year Fergus McGowan, the exchange taught him to never again take for granted his verdant homeland, or the close-knit construction that recalls a time without automobiles.
“It’s weird being in a landlocked town when you’re on the coast in Oban for most of your life,” he said. “Everything’s really spread out: in Oban you can walk everywhere, here you have to drive everywhere. If I’m in my house, I can just walk into town and to all the shops.”
Upperclassmen at both schools apply in the fall to take part in the following summer’s exchange, but the similarities end there. While typically 20 to 25 American students apply to take part, the Scottish group of 13 was winnowed down this year from 86 through several projects and team-building activities, with only half of the original applicant pool even being interviewed.
“At our school, all trips are sort of tied to a subject, like you’ll go on a geography trip, a French trip, or a Spanish trip,” said Murray Hamilton, a physical education teacher at Oban High School and a trip chaperon. “This doesn’t have a subject. It’s not about traditional education, it’s about experiencing culture and becoming a successful and confident individual and being able to act as an ambassador for your town, your school, your family, and your country.”
Hamilton himself first visited Laurinburg in 1998 as a student member of the exchange. Motivated by a love of sports, he returned the next year after graduating from Oban High School and spent a year playing soccer and attending Scotland High School in 1999-2000.
“It was hands-down the most life-changing experience I’d had, coming here for a year,” said Hamilton. “I effectively left home when I was 17 and came and lived in the United States for a year.”
Aside from the vast differences between the two countries’ landscape and infrastructure, this year’s exchange students learned to appreciate the smallest aspects of their daily lives — like the availability of Pop-Tarts in several dozen flavors.
“We went to Walmart today and my Scots bought like 10 boxes of Pop-Tarts,” said Mayghan.
“They have never been to haunted houses before, so we took them and most of them cried and they screamed and it was really funny to watch.”
Though the 2013 Sister Cities Exchange is over, the connection between the students it united is not — for some students the exchange inspires a lifelong love affair with a country 3,500 miles away. Exchange committee member Becca Hughes became involved with the program after her daughter Rachel, who later spent a university semester abroad in Edinburgh, returned from her experience in Oban “a changed woman.”
“There’s something to be said for going somewhere else, being yourself, and having a great time and developing relationships just being you,” said Hughes. “As trite as it sounds, it broadens your horizons, you see that you can go to another country, and you gain a tremendous amount of independence.”
Noah Altman, a former Scotland High School student and current junior at N.C. School of Science and Math in Raleigh, participated in the exchange this year and returned home for Wednesday evening’s farewell ceilidh, held at Hughes’ home. The students had a final meal together as a group and all signed keepsake flags for each member of the exchange.
“I hope it goes on forever, because it’s awesome,” he said.