The British are Coming!

British students visit Yorktown seniors enrolled in AP U.S. Government

Natalie Poole

British students visit Yorktown seniors enrolled in AP U.S. Government

Beth Gentsch, Sentry Staff Reporter

It is 7 p.m. on Election Day. The polls in Arlington County are closing, with the last lingering voters finishing up their ballots. Meanwhile, a gathering of British and American students in government teacher Michael Palermo’s room has just begun. The atmosphere is buzzing with chatter and excitement. The students are introducing themselves and mingling with ease and curiosity, talking about everything from the 2016 presidential candidates to their favorite T.V. shows.

The British students belong to a government class at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, United Kingdom. They have flown across the Atlantic to visit the United States for a week, touring around D.C. and visiting places such as the Jefferson Memorial, the Supreme Court and Yorktown High School. The year 2015 marks the sixth year that Mr. Palermo’s AP U.S. & Comparative Government class has met with Hills Road students to discuss a topic that they both have in common: politics.

This year’s itinerary included a panel discussion with alumni that are currently involved in government and politics. Many of the alums are now lawyers or interns who work on Capitol Hill and are routinely involved in the topics covered in Palermo’s class. They each gave a briefing of their jobs and offered advice to the listening students before the floor was opened for questions.  

However, Palermo mentioned that the agenda for the night can vary from year to year.

“Several of the times that British students came to visit, it coincided with an election, and so for the midterm election last year and the presidential election a few years ago, they were here for election night and got to watch the returns with all of us,” said Palermo.

The event is not only an academic experience covering politics, but a cultural one as well. One year the Hills Road students stayed for the Yorktown-WL football game and were able to watch live American football, something that many of them had never done before.

A highlight of each year’s event is simply interacting with students from another country, a situation that most teenagers do not normally find themselves in.

“I was telling someone the other day that one of the years that they came was when the most recent Harry Potter movie came out, and it came out in England before it came out here, so that was a big topic of conversation. It’s usually just a fun way to learn a little bit more about people who come from a different part of the world,” said Palermo.

This year, students met and talked in Palermo’s room for about an hour before the panel discussion. Hills Road student Josh Phillips gave his two cents on what confused him the most about American politics.

“How you let people like Trump and Carter run without any background in politics is just surprising…it’s like they run the country and they haven’t done anything,” said Phillips.

Hills Road students Robyn Thomas and Anya-Grace Howe-Abram agreed with Phillips, adding that they found America’s electoral college system very complicated as well. The U.K.’s electoral system does not use an electoral college to elect the prime minister. Instead, citizens vote for candidates on a first-past-the-post system to the House of Commons (similar to the U.S.’s House of Representatives), meaning whichever candidate gets the most votes is elected. The leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons then becomes the prime minister.

Phillips and his friends also joked about how the U.S. sales tax confused them.

“They [the store] put a price on…and then it’s not actually the price. We have tax in the U.K., but it’s already included. So if you only have 10 dollars and you see something that says 10 dollars, it’s actually more? Like what?” said Phillips.

The Hills Road students mentioned that some of the current issues in the U.K. and the U.S. are similar, such as the legalization of marijuana and immigration. Unlike the U.S., marijuana remains illegal in all parts of the U.K., although there have been petitions in the past to gain support for legalization of the drug.

Similar to controversy over immigration in the U.S., the Syrian refugee crisis is a large issue in many European countries. The U.K. has pledged to accept 20,000 refugees by 2020.

“Immigration is big with the Syrians…we don’t see a lot where we live, but it’s still a big issue,” said Phillips.

Palermo states that a special part of the event is not simply the interactions between students, but the fact that many of the newly formed connections blossom into friendships after the night is over.

“One thing that surprised me over the years is that some of the students who’ve been a part of it have kept in touch with each other…there have been a handful of Yorktown students that have either studied abroad or gone to University in the U.K., and so they’ve reconnected with some of the British students. I think that’s one of the benefits to social media and the ease of communication. They meet for for this one time, but then some of the students have maintained contact with each other after that one night,” said Palermo.