Student summer exchange program sends teens to France and Spain, welcomes Europeans to Columbia

October 25, 2018
Image of teenagers participating in the Sister Cities Program

Howard County teens adventure to France or Spain for two weeks in the summer, then host European teens back home in the U.S. for another two weeks as part of CA’s Sister Cities High School Exchange Program.

By Tim Lemke

Leah McClelland knew France would be different, but it was the subtle things that caught her attention. Like the fact that people biked and walked to most places — and the fact that no one knew you could combine melted marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers.

“I don’t think they make s’mores over there,” said McClelland, a senior at Long Reach High School.

McLelland was one of 20 Howard County students who traveled with chaperones this summer to one of Columbia’s sister cities in Europe: Cergy-Pontoise, a suburb of Paris, and Tres Cantos, Spain, outside of Madrid. The students spent two weeks in Europe and then hosted their counterparts in the United States in July.

The program offered the American and European students the chance to learn more about a different culture, bolster their language skills, and do some sightseeing along the way.

The Sister Cities High School Exchange Program is open to Howard County high school students who will have completed level three of French or Spanish by the end of the current academic year, or who have similar fluency.

For the American students, the opportunity to practice their language skills was invaluable. Allison Alston, a student at Reservoir High School, said she was happy to have the experience of hearing French-speaking people outside the classroom setting.

“When we were in France I learned a lot of the language,” Alston said. “In the classroom, we learned textbook French, so when I learned that the dialect was different, I really liked that.”

Alston stayed in Cergy-Pontoise with French high schooler Marie Caron. After that trip, Caron came back to Columbia as part of the exchange program.

“I hope they learned a lot about our culture and the way we live,” Caron said.

While in Columbia, the student took part in a variety of sightseeing trips, but also spent a day volunteering for various nonprofit groups in the area. Alston and Caron, for example, were part of a group volunteering at Roll Up N Dye in Columbia, where they filled plastic bottles to be used to make earth-friendly bus stop benches.

“The exchange students are learning that there are a variety of ways to use their skills and talents, or even just their time and energy, to the benefit of others,” said Pamela Simonson, executive director of the Volunteer Center Serving Howard County. “Because this project is making something tangible, when it’s finished we can send pictures to these students to say, ‘Look at what you helped create.’ It will have a long-range impact.”

Nicholas Pavlosky, a student at River Hill High School who traveled to Tres Cantos in June, said he enjoyed seeing a new country as more than just a tourist.

“We had the experience of living everyday life in their home, and we got to meet all of their friends,” he said. “You’re hanging out with a lot of people your age, but in a different country.”

Cristina Esteve, a junior from Tres Cantos, enjoyed sharing her favorite Spanish foods, most notably the calamari sandwich and Spanish omelet. Esteve said she made friendships that could last a lifetime.

“Sometimes you think that where you are from is the best, and nothing could be better. But if you go visit other places, you learn about their culture,” she said. “The people are very nice here. I would like to come back in a few years and keep contact.”

How to applyInterested in a teen exchange trip to France or Spain? Learn more at an upcoming information session: Monday, November 12; Thursday, November 29; Tuesday, December 11; Wednesday, January 16; and Thursday, January 31. All sessions are 7-8pm at Columbia Association Headquarters, 6310 Hillside Court, Columbia. 

Applications are available at and are due by February 15, 2019. For more information, go to

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