Calhoun culture shock

Merrick students travel to Mississippi for “sister school” program


“Sometimes, you think everyone lives the same way we do on Long Island,” said Jaclyn Tommer, a senior at Calhoun High School in Merrick. Tommer was referring to the culture shock she experienced with 10 of her peers when they became students at Pascagoula High School in Mississippi for a day.

Tommer and her peers recalled some of the unfamiliar sights they saw in the southern town’s political landscape, which included a number of confederate flags and pro-President Donald Trump signs outside of residential homes. Alternatively, they noted that students addressed their parents as “ma’am” and “sir” and greeted strangers on the street as if they were close friends.

Beginning with the initial trip to Mississippi in February, Calhoun High School participated in its first “Pascagoula Sister School” program. For three years, Kenneth Zisel, the school’s assistant principal, has turned over the idea or running such a program with the Mississippi school, where his friend, Lewis Sims, is the head football coach. He thought it would fit well in the itinerary of Calhoun’s senior leadership class, which includes various team-building and charitable activities.

“The program opened students eyes to what life is like outside of New York and forced them to step out of their comfort zones,” said Brian Joyce, the instructor of Calhoun’s leadership class.

Students selected 11 of their peers to send to Mississippi from Feb. 23 to 27, when the rest of the school was on winter break. Once there, students spent a full day at Pascagoula High School, participated in a variety of team-building activities and attended the town’s Mardi Gras event.

Pascagoula students reunited with their Calhoun counterparts from April 27 to 30, when they shadowed the senior leadership students and experienced a weekend on Long Island. This featured a New York pizza party, a shopping spree at Roosevelt Field Mall, a trip to the Long Island Adventure Park and a day in Manhattan— topped off with a Yankee game.

The cultural differences came as a shock, albeit a learning experience, to many of the students. “The whole school experience is different,” said senior Nick Cantalupo. He referred to the school schedule, which had longer blocks of time per class.

What also came off as jarring to the students was the inability to leave campus during free periods and the school’s no cell phone policy. “[I learned] not to take what we have here for granted,” said senior Jack Roberts. “We have freedoms here that they don’t.”

Joyce said that the program allowed students to see what life was like outside of their community, whether it is desirable or uncomfortable. “It gave both groups a real taste of the different cultures that exist out there,” he added. Multiple students have shown interest in traveling abroad at their respective universities because of the experience.