When Columbia Association Board Chairwoman Shari Zaret was presented with a proclamation of friendship by Christian Gourmelen, the former mayor of CA's sister city, Cergy-Pontoise, on her recent visit to the French city, she was pleasantly surprised.

"It was a very warm ceremony," Zaret said recently. "He spoke very movingly about what it meant to him for Columbia to become a sister city back in the 1970's. It was very meaningful."

Gourmelen presented Zaret with the proclamation in September after she and three other representatives from the Columbia Association visited Cergy-Pontoise for the city's "Twinning Celebration," a two-day event that celebrated the planned French city's three sister city relationships.

The trip marked the first time in 10 years an official Columbia delegation visited the French city. Besides Zaret, the delegation consisted of CA board member Regina Clay, CA sister cities advisory committee chair Valerie Montague and sister cities advisory committee secretary Gina Di Pietro.

Zaret said the Columbia delegation accompanied officials from Cergy-Pontoise and its other two sister cities, Erkrath, Germany, and West Lancashire, England, on tours to places like the city's riverfront and historic sections.

Of the three cities, Cergy-Pontoise's 35-year relationship with Columbia is the longest, a feat Zaret said impressed the other foreign delegations.

"They were very impressed we have had this going for so long," Zaret said. "It's amazing to really see all the connections that have been made. We had people coming up to ask about people in Columbia. It was incredible."

According to Laura Smit, CA's international exchange and multicultural programs manager, the sister cities program began in the 1970's as an informal exchange between volunteer coalitions from both cities, at the suggestion of a Columbia resident working in the French city.

Former CA President Padriac "Pat" Kennedy said the first exchange came when a delegation from Cergy-Pontoise visited Columbia for its 10th anniversary celebration in 1977.

The next year, Kennedy led a delegation across the Atlantic to Cergy-Pontoise to partake in the French city's 10th anniversary celebration.

Since then, it has grown into a multi-dimensional exchange program that offers both high school students and adults from both areas an opportunity to immerse themselves in a different culture.

"It's about citizen diplomacy," Zaret said. "In a time of globalization, it is really fundamental to our future to make these relationships. Having these one-on-one connections are what makes the deeper relationships possible."

Exchanging art, cuisine

Currently, the two cities have an annual student exchange, an art exchange and, the newest program, a cuisine exchange.

While participants in the cuisine exchange are the most recent representatives to visit the city — eight participants returned from Cergy-Pontoise on Sunday, Oct. 21 — the oldest, most popular program between the two cities is the student exchange program.

The student exchange program, which is open to students throughout the county, starts in late June when 12 to 20 students in grades 10 to 12 visit the French sister city for two weeks.

During their trip, the students, who must attain a certain level of proficiency in French, stay with the families of a French high school student and visit historic sites like the beaches of Normandy and Versailles.

After the two weeks are complete, the students return to the United States to prepare for the arrival of the French students they met in Cergy-Pontoise, who begin their visit only a few days later.

During the French students' two weeks, the group visits sites around Columbia, as well as destinations like Washington, New York City and Six Flags.

Information sessions for teens and parents on the 2013 exchange program are scheduled from 7 to 8 p.m. inside the Columbia Association headquarters on Nov. 7, Dec. 6 and Jan. 9.

Smit calls the program, which spans about five summer weeks, an "international summer camp."

"The whole idea behind the student exchange program is speaking the language and immersing the students in the culture," Smit said.

Zaret also spoke about the importance of the student exchange program, although she emphasized that students are not the only ones who can learn from trips to Cergy-Pontoise.

Zaret said looking at how Cergy-Pontoise serves its population of approximately 200,000 residents, which is more than twice the size of Columbia, can help CA as it plans for the future growth of Columbia.

"By forging these relationships, we are establishing a significant resource," Zaret said. "We can benefit from the experience the city has had with growth and redevelopment."