Zelda Smyrniadis has a Greek father, was raised in England, went to school in France and now teaches French at Broad Run High School.
Smyrniadis is one of 50 teachers in Loudoun schools from Visiting International Faculty (VIF), a selective program that equips talented teachers like Smyrniadis with visas and matches them with schools like Broad Run. It's a win-win situation: students learn about another culture, and teachers get immersed in America.
"I was looking forward to coming to America, because I had watched so many movies," said Smyrniadis while sitting in her classroom, which is one of the trailers outside Broad Run. She joked that she came to "find a cowboy."
Now halfway through her second year teaching French at Broad Run, Smyrniadis has become so comfortable that she is now a local advisor for VIF. She helps VIF's other teachers become acquainted with the area — and as it turns out, Loudoun County can be a daunting place for new arrivals.
Smyrniadis remembers driving the lead car as a string of new teachers in their new cars, some of whom had barely driven before, tried to follow her back to Ashburn.
"They were going about 10 miles per hour behind me on Route 7," Smyrniadis said, laughing. "I kept losing them."
VIF draws teachers from all over the world, but according to Smyrniadis, the groups tend to congregate by native language. At a recent social gathering she hosted to check in on all the new teachers, all the English and Australians stood outside and chatted while the South Americans sat in the living room.
It wasn't until her Australian roommate sat down with the South Americans with his guitar that the barriers started breaking down, Smyrniadis said.
"You do tend to go with people who are similar to yourself," she said.
SOCIAL LIVES aside, VIF teachers tend to be bright, sociable people like Smyrniadis. Both the teacher and the school take a leap of faith by agreeing to take each other on — it's the faith in VIF's selective process that makes the program work.
Only one in 10 applicants gets selected to go to America, according to VIF spokesperson Leslie Maxwell. Applicants write essays and go through a series of interviews.
"It's almost like they're applying to college," Maxwell said.
In Smyrniadis's case, Assistant Superintendent Matthew Britt actually flew to England to interview her, but that's not normally the case. Schools trust VIF, Maxwell said, because of its 15 years of experience and ability to obtain visas for teachers. With 1,800 international teachers in the United States, VIF has become the largest cultural-exchange program for teachers and schools in the country.
Smyrniadis, meanwhile, has become a popular teacher at Broad Run. Not only do her students learn French, they also learn some British terms like "minging" (nasty) and "lollypop man" (crossing guard), making them trilingual, in a sense. Smyrniadis can also teach German in addition to French, so she is literally trilingual.
While VIF teachers can stay for a maximum of three years, she has decided to return to England at the end of this school year, after just two years here. It's not because she doesn't like it — she says she loves it here — but because of an inconvenient tax treaty between the U.S. and England that would foul up her finances if she stayed more than two years.
"I would stay if it wasn't for the taxes," she said.
She's not the only one who wants her to stay. Broad Run principal Edgar Markley has appreciated what Smyrniadis has brought to the classroom.
"It's an enriching experience for the kids," he said. He added that many of the staff had wished she had found her cowboy — an American one, that is. Smyrniadis is currently seeing an Irish bartender, the marriage to whom wouldn't help the visa situation.
"I was hoping she would find somebody so she can stay here," Markley said with a laugh.