The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

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Tango Across Borders: Poly’s Old Argentina Exchange Program


On September 11, 2001, at 8 o’clock in the morning, twenty Argentine students and Poly Spanish teachers José Oliveras and Graziella Sidoli piled into a yellow school bus to leave Poly for a field trip to the World Trade Center. Attendance was taken, and everything felt ready to go. But something was missing. Upon boarding the bus, Oliveras realized that the Commons staff had forgotten to prepare and pack their to-go lunch. 

While Sidoli went to sort the situation, the students sang and joked until she returned: “Chicos, bajen porque parece que una avioneta o un helicóptero chocó contra una de las torres; Guys, get off because it seems like a small plane or a helicopter crashed into one of the towers.”

“That was our luck,” said Oliveras in an interview. “Obviously, we never left.”

The fall of 2001 was the seventh edition of an exchange program Poly ran in partnership with the trilingual school Academia Argüello in Córdoba, Argentina. During Spring Break each year, a group of mostly juniors and the occasional sophomore or freshman would travel to Argentina with the program’s coordinator and another chaperone, attend some classes at the school in Córdoba, and live with host families. The following September, those same Poly students would host their Argentine “siblings” in New York. 

In a world with an increasing need for global citizens to solve international problems, opportunities for intercultural understanding are more important than ever. Recently, Poly introduced the first initiative since the Argentina program that’ll give students a similar level of cultural immersion. But to bring twenty students to another continent and host another twenty students in students’ homes every year requires hours of coordination, communication, and hard work. While the program inspired Poly students to pursue language, travel, and see the world in a brand new way, as time passed, only one teacher was allotted to be in charge at once. The teacher was to organize everything — while still teaching full-time. 

In 1994, Poly alumnus Larry Levine, who at the time was corporate counsel for Aerolineas Argentinas — Argentina’s primary airline — offered a travel grant to a Poly teacher to create a connection between Poly and a local school in Córdoba, according to a Poly press release from 1996. Then-Spanish teacher Lori Langer de Ramirez’s proposal to establish an exchange program with a school in Argentina won the grant, and she traveled to Argentina in the summer of 1994.

“My charge was to set up those connections,” Langer said. After first going to Buenos Aires, she went to Córdoba, where Levine, who lived there, had a prior connection to Academia Arguello. Langer recalls the people at Academia Arguello, including Head of English Susana Cabido, “were incredible, warm, and welcoming. They were eager to make connections.” Cabido could not be reached for an interview. 

Just as Poly students would later experience, Langer was cared for, fed, and brought around town. “I remember exploring the town and also looking for things that kids could do when they’re not in school because it’s not just about the school, it’s about the environment,” she said. With both sides eager to make the connection, after plenty of discussion of logistics — when students would come, where they’d stay, what they’d do — it was set for the program to begin with the Poly students going to Argentina in the Spring of 1995. 


After an overnight trip from JFK airport to Buenos Aires, Poly students spent a few days in the capital before traveling to Córdoba, where they met and lived with their host families, went to school with their host siblings, and explored the city. At the school, Poly students shadowed the Argentine students, who took classes in Spanish in the morning and classes in English in the afternoon. 

On that first trip, Langer recalls a Poly student approaching her after “hanging out with Argentinian kids … and talking about who knows what,” she said. “And he came over and he said, ‘oh my God, there’s a whole different way of being,’ and I thought, ‘oh my God, this is the most profound thing I’ve ever heard from a young adult in my life.’ What he was saying is that these kids had a different perspective on life. They lived their lives differently.”

That first year was Langer’s only year leading the trip. (In 1997, she left Poly to finish her doctorate. She’s now the Head of Languages at The Dalton School in Manhattan.) Sidoli and Oliveras took over leadership of the program as co-coordinators. 

Prior to the program in Argentina, Poly had a program in Spain run by one teacher, according to Sidoli. “One of the things I was saying to myself was ‘I’d never do that’ because I saw how much [the teacher] worked,” said Sidoli in an interview. When Langer came to her with the proposition of leading the Argentina program, Sidoli said, “no, of course, not me, I’m too busy.” But on second thought, Sidoli was drawn to the idea of returning to Argentina, where she had lived until age 14. “So I said okay, and it was very interesting.”

One afternoon in Córdoba on Sidoli’s first trip in 1996, one of the host families — who happened to be the wealthiest family in the city — invited the Poly students to their hacienda (large, rural estate) outside the city. Upon arrival, the bus packed with curious Americans was escorted through the gates by two gauchos (cowboys).

After a horse ride, singing, and dancing “came the big gift,” recalled Sidoli. “The big present was that they butchered a cow for us … that included the cow growing inside the womb.” But next, some students went to see where the cattle had their horns shaved off, were branded, and, lastly, had their testicles cut off. “But that wasn’t enough,” said Sidoli. “Then [the Argentines] roasted them and ate them.” Only one student ate the cow testicles. 

Back at the school, the Americans got a lot of attention, but communication barriers rarely proved a problem, according to Andrew McNally, a Poly student who was on the 1996 trip. “The level of English proficiency that our hosts had certainly dwarfed my level of Spanish proficiency,” he said. Similarly, the Argentines received a lot of attention at Poly, recalled McNally.

Through all this, Sidoli remembers working what felt like twenty-four hours a day. “All sorts of things would happen, anything from something stupid like that the student wouldn’t drink anything else except orange juice and wouldn’t eat anything.” While in Córdoba, Sidoli stayed with Cabido, the leader of the program for Academia Argüello, and vice versa in New York. 

Sidoli’s work extended throughout the school year, as she made sure students were prepared for the trip far before they touched down in Latin America so that they would apply themselves and not just be in Argentina on vacation. Furthermore, she had to decide which students would get to participate in the program and match those students with host students. “It was so intense but I did it again and again, even though each time I would say, I’m not going to do this anymore. This is the last year,” said Sidoli. “And Susana [Cabido] would say the same. And both of us knew that that was not the case.”

When Sidoli left Poly in 2002, Oliveras took over the program single-handedly. He said he focused on emphasizing the cultural components of the program, like going to museums and “having some cultural exposure to the amazing cultural life that Córdoba offers.” He put on a play done by the Argentine students and Poly students while abroad, forcing the students to learn to act in another language. “The [Argentine students] were so graceful with our students in terms of supporting them in trying to act in Spanish,” he recalled.

One night, after going to a Tango show in Buenos Aires, Oliveras and the students were walking through one of the historic neighborhoods when he noticed one of the students was sobbing. 

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Todo bien?”

“No, this city is just so beautiful,” she said.

Oliveras was taken aback by the visible impact the trip had already had on the student. “I thought, ‘wow, that someone that age has already developed that sensibility to get to that point of crying in front of the beauty of a city is incredible,’” he recalled. He said he keeps that memory in his heart. 

But like Sidoli, he found the work intense and overwhelming at times, emphasizing the coordination of the traveling. On the trip to Argentina, they did not use any travel agency or tour company where they got a package with all their stops included. “We had to coordinate everything. We had to.” Simply organizing the matching of the students to the families took “an incredible amount of time.” At the Academia Argüello, one teacher was wholly dedicated to organizing their side of the program. 

“Let me tell you,” he said as he leaned forward. “That was a lot of work on the part of whoever the coordinator was. An amazing amount of work.” But the memories, experiences, and smooth relationship between every Poly coordinator and Cabido through the years kept the program intact.

When Oliveras finally moved on from the program in 2005, he passed it to a teacher named Rebecca Matthews, who a year later passed it to Ron Sarcos, a Spanish teacher still at Poly who started at the school in 2005. While in charge, Sarcos made two significant changes to the program. 

The first was adding a trip to El Calafate, Patagonia, in the south of Argentina, to the itinerary. “I thought it would be better to get to know more areas in more places,” he said.
“So we spent three or four days in Buenos Aires, and then two days in El Calafate, and then we would go to Córdoba.”

Hesitantly, he admitted the second change: “The trip used to be known as a party trip, so you had the students that were interested in that sign up for it,” he said. “Privately, I made it more of a nerdy trip.” He created the Spanish Exchange Program Club, which assured that students would be fully committed and academically engaged ahead of and during the trip. 

When Sarcos ultimately gave up the program in 2013, a teacher named Jennifer Olson-Walker (now known as Jennifer Olson) took up the job. With tensions rising, Olson and the teacher chaperone, former history teacher Louise Forsythe, noticed other problems on their trip in 2014. For example, the Argentine host families were primarily affluent, white, English-speaking upper-class families, and Poly students therefore did not see the whole picture. Second, “it felt a little imbalanced because we would go there where they had lots of space, really big houses for us to stay in and to accommodate us,” said Olson in an interview. “Whereas in New York City a lot of people have smaller apartments.”

Moreover, the era of real liability had begun to roll in. “You need to make sure that the programs have documents written up by lawyers and people have signed off their ability to sue in case something goes wrong,” said Mansfield. 

“I remember [Olson] coming back, and it was like … ‘Oh, no. She doesn’t want to do it anymore. What are we going to do?’” said Sarcos. Mansfield and Maité Iracheta, another Poly Spanish teacher, also both recalled Olson coming back frustrated. Olson tried hard to convince Sarcos to pick it back up, but he refused, and nobody else in the department wanted to do it, according to Sarcos. 

“I think the administration at the time,” said Sarcos, picking his words carefully. “I think the administration at the time could have done a better job at demonstrating — ultimately, I don’t know if they appreciated it — but demonstrating the appreciation for [the Argentines’] visit.”

Finally, with no new teacher to heft the coordinator role onto, the breakup commenced. Mansfield and Sarcos got on a Skype call with Camio, the program director on the Academia Argüello side, and others. The Poly side broke the news and gave their reasons, and the Argentines were more devastated than the Americans. And just like that, it was over.

In December of 2023, Mansfield announced the Global Studies Language Scholars Program, an opportunity for four top language 12th-grade students to travel and live fully funded with a host family for 2-3 weeks in France, Spain, Costa Rica, or Singapore. The program is fully coordinated through Education First, a language company with programs worldwide. Poly students will go to an Education First Language Abroad campus in May, where they’ll take four hours of language classes daily, among other non-native speakers. They’ll also complete their Senior Capstone project while abroad, and present it at Poly in their target language. While it is not an exchange program specific to Poly, it helps to fill the gap left by the Argentina program. 

Sarah Bates, head of Upper School since 2019, agreed that the Argentina Program — and now the Language Scholars program — perfectly align with Poly’s values. “[These programs] are literally expanding your frame of reference,” she said. “And I think that’s really central to what we want to be able to do for Poly students.”

Poly also runs trips to Mexico and France, among other places, for Spanish and French students to participate in during school breaks, but students stay in hotels and trips are organized through travel companies. “We need to offer more of [these experiences] at Poly,” concluded Bates.

“I feel like we could do something like [the Argentina program] again under the right conditions with somebody whose job it is to find families, to draft up the legal documents, etc.” said Mansfield. (History teacher Timothy Shea, newly Poly’s official Travel Coordinator, receives extra compensation for this work.) With a new Head of School set to take over Poly in 2025, Mansfield pointed out that possibilities are wider than ever. 

Meanwhile, Academia Argüello recently found a new match with The Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights. The Argentine students came to New York for the first time in September 2023, and the Packer students traveled to Argentina in March 2024, following the same timeline as the program with Poly. 

To Philip Sheers, the Poly student who did the program in its last year, the exchange was “a chance to really get outside my comfort zone and see a really different part of the world,” he said. “I think the language piece often gets undersold as like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s good to speak another language, it’ll help you with your SATs and it will get you into college.’ That may be true, but it is not anywhere close to the lasting value that knowing a second language and having that experience has had on my life.”

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