sister cities

Atholton students, from left, Savannah Colligon, Julia Wohlers, Taylor Combs, Sophia Brocenos, David Suggs, Allegra Balmadier and Drew Wall participated in the Columbia Association's student exchange program last summer, spending 2 1/2 weeks in either Cergy-Pontoise, France or Tres Cantos, Spain. The Atholton contingent was the largest of any school. (Staff photo by Sarah Pastrana / January 19, 2012)

Drew Wall, a junior at Atholton High School, says a curious thing happened after he visited Spain in a student exchange program last summer: He found himself automatically translating a popular song that got stuck in his head into Spanish.

The Clarksville resident's instinctive tendency to think in Español after two weeks of immersion in another culture is exactly what teachers and parents are hoping for, said Caryn Brodsky, the school's instructional team leader in world languages.

"There is nothing like living in the country whose language you are studying to increase your understanding," she said.

The summer exchange program, which began in 1977 with a formal agreement with the planned city of Cergy-Pontoise, France, and was expanded in 1990 to Tres Cantos, Spain, is run by the Columbia Association and coordinated by Laura Smit, program manager of International Exchange and Multicultural Programs.


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Students spend about two weeks during the summer living with host students and their families to experience Spanish or French culture, languages and traditions. They then return home, where they host their Spanish or French student counterparts for another two weeks.

Applicants must be high school students who reside in Howard County and who have completed level three of Spanish or French or have the equivalent language fluency. Participation is open to students who attend public or private schools or are home schooled.

Students might soon have the option for a third country: CA is working on a new Sister Cities agreement with Tema, Ghana, Smit said, which is likely to become official later this year.

Wall said he didn't take the idea of participating too seriously at first.

"I thought my parents wouldn't let me go [to Spain] since it's across the world," he said. "But when I told them about it they said, 'Whoa, you should go,' and so I did."

Parents, indeed, are an important consideration for many participants.

Julie Wohlers, an Atholton junior who lives in Ellicott City, suggested to her parents a trip to France would make "a really great pre-graduation gift," and they surprised her by agreeing, she said. Savannah Colligon, a senior from Columbia, struck a deal with her parents by agreeing to talk with them most days on Skype, a video calling website, during her two weeks in Spain.

High participation rate

Atholton sent eight students to visit Columbia's two sister cities in Europe last summer, which, like the previous couple of summers, was more than any other school.

Atholton's high participation rate has a couple of explanations, but it starts with the world languages staff, Smit said.

"The teachers really talk it up to the students because they see the importance of getting out of the classroom and out of the U.S.A. to practice Spanish or French," she said. She said she spends two days giving presentations to the school's world languages classes.

"We already have good interest percolating," Brodsky said. "Getting kids interested is the key motivator for increased participation."

Students live with host families, which helps keep costs down, Smit said. Parents pay airfare, typically about $1,200, and a CA fee, which is $650 for members and $790 for non-members. Extras such as spending money are the host families' responsibility.

Students participate in local cultural and recreational activities and visit each others' important cities and historic sites, such as Paris, the Palace of Versailles, Madrid, Segovia, and Toledo, for the American students, and Washington, New York City, Ocean City and Baltimore for the Europeans.

Another important component of Atholton's high-participation rate is students' enthusiasm for spreading the word to their classmates when they return.

"All of these kids can talk about their experiences being cultural ambassadors and the linguistic immersion process," Smit said. "They all say the trip 'changed their life' and it was 'the best summer of their life.'"

In an October 2011 article for The Raider Online, Atholton's student newspaper, reporter Rosie Brown wrote about the second leg of the month-long experience, when the Spanish and French students come to America to stay with the students they had just hosted:

"For some people, traveling to another country can cause quite a culture shock. According to Laura Smit, the Program Manager, the foreign students find themselves a bit stunned when they come to America. They get to see things that they do not have back at home. Things the average American teenager takes for granted, such as squirrels and school buses, are so novel to them.

"The French kids are so excited. They just want to take a picture in front of the yellow school bus. … And when they see the lockers they're like, 'These are just like the lockers from Glee!' said Smit."

Forced to learn language

What most impressed students who have participated in the program was how quickly their language proficiency improved.

"You are forced to speak [the language] and it's the only way to survive," said Allegra Balmadier, a junior who went to France and whose paternal grandparents emigrated from that country to America. "You have to use the language under pressure," she said, and that forces students to think on their feet.

David Suggs, a junior from Columbia who traveled to Spain, said his Spanish is now "10 times better" than before the trip.

Taylor Combs, also a junior from Columbia, joked that she didn't exactly excel at conjugating Spanish verbs and "spoke in the present tense all the time" but her host family was patient with her.

All students agreed they had returned from Europe with a newfound confidence and a flair for self-reliance, and had also shed their fear of taking risks.

"You are living with random strangers, so you teach yourself how to get to know people," Colligon said.

"I had anxiety at first, but it went away because my person would not let me be shy," she said about arriving in Spain. "All you have to do [during your stay] is be able to adapt."

Sophia Brocenos, a junior who lives in North Laurel and went to France, said the program has a built-in "comfort factor" because you socialize with American classmates while you're in Europe through group activities.

Suggs said he felt he now has a more open mind about the differences and similarities among the world's cultures.

"The experience gives you a different perspective, but I never lost sight of who I was as a person," he said, noting he still speaks to his new friend every day.

Combs said she doesn't rely on her parents as heavily as before and can find ways to carry out her plans independently.

"In Spain you are given the freedom to do what you want, but you also have more responsibilities," she said. "Teens there are growing up a lot differently.

She added: "Once you do this trip, you feel like you can do so much more."

Applications are due Feb. 17 and are available online at columbiaassociation.org/teenexchange, or by calling Laura Smit at 410-715-3162.