European tour for an inner-city girl

Designer jeans, red belt, pearl-buttoned blouse - Sharon Brown fits right in with the rest of the predominantly black student body at the once-elegant Jeremiah E. Burke High School in a run-down section of Roxbury.

Except for one thing. Sharon, a junior who lives just around the corner from the school, spent five weeks last summer in Europe. By her own admission, it changed her life.

Sitting in a cramped basement office set aside for an interview, she recalled her trip to London, Paris, and Spain - including the three weeks of living in a dormitory at the University of Salamanca and studying Spanish. ''It made me respect other people's cultures more - to learn how they act and see how they do ,'' she says.

''I didn't think I was going to be speaking as much Spanish,'' she added with a smile. But she says that while ''there's not that many black people in Spain, '' she ''didn't feel any prejudice.''

Sharon is one of very few American inner-city students who have had such an opportunity. When a Roxbury community-based agency, Freedom House, announced plans to send two students abroad on a trip organized by the American Institute for Foreign Study of Greenwich, Conn., she was recommended by her Spanish teacher. Funds for her trip - about $3,300, all expenses paid - came from a local chapter of National Links Inc., a nationwide organization of black women. Muriel Snowdon of Freedom House says that while her group has helped organize exchanges for 15 years, ''funding these programs is not an easy job.'' Her organization has no plans to send Burke students abroad this summer.

Part of the problem: finding students prepared to go. Spanish classes at Burke, for example, stop after sophomore year - and typically focus much more on reading and writing than on speaking.

So, for all she has learned, Sharon will have to wait until college to pursue her Spanish. Does she speak Spanish at all now? she was asked. ''Nope,'' she said. Does she wish she could? ''Yep,'' she grinned.

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