Tongan students sing from the soul

In July last year, the chapel at the Melbourne synod office filled with the sounds of young Tongan voices singing in harmony. The voices were those of 11 teenage girls from Queen Salote College, Tonga who were in Melbourne as part of an exchange program with Methodist Ladies College (MLC).

The performance at the synod chapel offered staff the chance to not only enjoy the girls’ talent but feel involved in a unique program run through one of the Uniting Church’s schools.

Since 1997, the program has honoured and nurtured the relationship between the schools. Every year it offers a cultural experience for the girls involved and, most importantly, provides the opportunity for them to form new relationships.

Students from both communities share their lifestyles as well as their individual stories, often making lasting impressions on one another whether host or visitor.

Queen Salote College’s vice principal-administration, Mele Pakileata Taulanga said her students took away a rich cultural experience and an understanding of what it was like to be educated in a more developed country.

“It is a whole new world for them,” she said. “They stay with host families and adapt to a very different way of life and food.”

The students agreed the schooling at MLC was a world away from the experience of their home school in Tonga, despite the close geographical proximity of the two countries.

This year, 12 students from MLC will undertake the return trip of between 10-12 days to Queen Salote College. The students will be hosted by families for five days, spend at least one night at the school’s boarding house and generally get a feel for Tongan life.

Chaplain at MLC, Janet Munro considers relationship building as the core objective of the program.

“You don’t have to have another agenda – building relationships between people of different countries and cultures is a good thing in itself. Our students who participated in past years have made return trips to Tonga to visit people they connected with while there on the exchange program,” Ms Munro said.

“The program emphasises the importance of family, community, adopting a giving and sharing culture – as opposed to our culture which can be very individualistic. That’s good learning for the students.

“But for the most part, the thing young people remember most are the relationships.”

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