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.'"