When 16-year-old Bridget Cheng went to Red Robin restaurant last week with a friend, they looked like two teenage girls having a traditional American meal.
But to Cheng's friend, Olivia Aloysia, an exchange student from Cergy-Pontoise, France, the experience was far from routine.
"Over in France, they eat everything with a knife and fork," said Cheng, a rising senior at Atholton High School. "So when they see us grabbing things with our hands, they get uncomfortable. I tried to explain, but she insisted on cutting her burger."
This interaction between Cheng and Aloysia was one of many eye-opening experiences shared between the 52 students taking part in the Columbia Association's Sister Cities International Exchange Program. The annual five-week program, which is open to all high school students in Howard County taking level 3 French and Spanish, offers students an opportunity to immerse themselves in a foreign culture. Each American student is paired with one student from one of CA's two sister cities in Cergy-Pontoise, France and Tres Cantos, Spain.
Each student spends two weeks living with their host partner. The American students made their trip in late June and early July, while the international students have spent the last week in the United States and are scheduled to return home by the end of the month.
"It's all about getting to know what the rest of the world is doing," said Laura Smit, CA's manager of International Exchange & Multicultural Programs. "A lot of the things the students see in the textbook come alive to them. It opens their eyes that the world is a bigger place than Howard County."
During their exchange, the American students do their fair share of sightseeing. But they also live with their foreign families, which allows them to experience cultural nuances of their host country.
One of the things Cheng picked up on was the formality surrounding French dining customs.
"The meals take very long, but you aren't eating the whole time," said Cheng. "Everything starts together and it ends together, it's all very cordial. The whole culture is very cordial."
Delaney Jordan, a 2013 graduate of Glenelg High School, said one of the most interesting things about her trip to Spain was the work and dining schedule, which is augmented to accommodate the country's four-hour midday "siesta."
While students picked up on cultural differences, Jordan and Cheng agreed that despite living a world apart the students shared a lot in common.
"I realized even though these people live across the globe, we are all teenagers and we all act the same," Cheng said
"Children in Spain are raised similar to the way children are raised in America," Jordan said. "Just because something doesn't look familiar to you doesn't mean it's not. They've been brought up learning all the same things we have."
Smit said the program, which began in 1977 when the first group from Columbia exchanged with Cergy-Pontoise, was created for that exact purpose.
"The whole idea was to have more people to people relationships," she said. "These teenagers see themselves as different, but they start living with each other and realize the teenagers in other countries have their same interests."
Aside from the cultural and language benefits, the exchange program also teaches the participants independence, said Ellicott City's Carol Doermann, a three-time host parent of the program.
"It helps them grow," said Doermann, whose daughter, Meghan, went to France this year. "Because the kids have to break away from each other, learn the culture and live with another family, they learn a little more about how strong they can be."