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.