Globe trotters: Sister Cities exchange matches Howard County teens with French or Spanish counterparts
By Tripp Laino, November 2017
Despite being fairly well-versed in Spanish, Berri Wilmore still had a bit of culture shock when she visited Tres Cantos, Spain, as part of CA’s Sister Cities exchange program over the summer.
“We learn Spanish, but it’s for Latin America — so it’s like you know the vocabulary, but not the accent,” said the 17-year-old. “They speak with a lisp, and it was a challenge to adapt the words you already know to the accent they’re speaking with.”
Wilmore was one of 20 Howard County students sent to one of Columbia’s sister cities of Cergy- Pontoise, France (northwest of Paris), and Tres Cantos, Spain (near Madrid). And after the two-week trip, the students and their European counterparts traveled back to the United States for fun activities and adventures in and around Maryland.
The 2018 exchanges will take place from late June into July and are 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 have the equivalent language fluency).
There are scholarships available for Columbia residents who qualify. Information sessions for the French and Spanish exchanges will be held this winter (visit ColumbiaAssociation.org/ teenexchange for dates). Each session will include teen and parent alumni, as well as Laura Smit (program manager for CA’s International Exchange and Multicultural Programs), all of whom will speak and answer questions about the month-long program.
Wilmore and other students gathered in Columbia in August for a scavenger hunt as part of the program. While the students had only known each other for a short period, many seemed like old friends, laughing together and speaking in a mixture of English, French and Spanish. To help get acquainted before the trip, students swap emails, phone numbers and Instagram handles as a way of getting to know one another.
Paula Rial, a 16-year-old from Spain, was matched with Wilmore during the exchange. She said her primary motivation in joining the program was to see American life firsthand after seeing it in movies and television. Though she’d only spent a brief period of time in the U.S., she said one of the most significant differences she noted was transportation.
“It was really interesting because our cultures are very different,” she said. “One thing I love to do in Spain is walk everywhere, and at night I’d say let’s go walk, but it was very different [to Berri] because they drive everywhere here.”
Patricia Wilson, 17, visited Cergy-Pontoise, staying with Martin Muhlhoff and his family. Like Rial, the 17-year-old Muhlhoff said his primary motivation in joining the program was a chance to see America and learn about our way of life.
Wilson said one of the best parts of the trip was visiting Paris.
“Seeing Paris at night was really beautiful,” she said. “I expected it to be great, but at night, when it’s all lit up, it looks so awesome. I’m excited to take him to Ocean City — I love the beach and there’s just so much to do there.”
Wilmore joined the program late but said she and Rial were able to become fast friends. In Spain, they traveled to nearby Madrid, coincidentally visiting on the day of a Pride parade. “Everyone was out and happy — it was a great introduction to the country.”
She said she was excited to show Rial the way American teens hang out, as she noticed some pretty big differences between America and Spain.
“They go and do stuff, take the train to the city, so I’m excited to show her how we get together, and how we have fun when we don’t have walkable access to everywhere.”
Information sessions for the 2018 Sister Cities exchange will be held Monday, Nov. 6; Wednesday, Nov. 15; Tuesday, Dec. 5; Thursday, Jan. 11; and Wednesday, Jan. 17. All information sessions will be at 7pm at CA Headquarters, 6310 Hillside Court.
Wilmore and Rial had an instant answer for anyone thinking of joining the program — go!
“If you have the opportunity to travel, take it. It’s such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and they plan so much for you to do,” Wilmore said.
Applications for CA’s student exchanges in Cergy-Pontoise, France and Tres Cantos, Spain are now open. Learn more at ColumbiaAssociation.org/teenexchange or by contacting Laura Smit, manager of CA’s International Exchange and Multicultural Programs, at 410-715-3162 or International@ColumbiaAssociation.org.