Katherine Sand, Renee Giles and Megan Monaghan, Growing Community. Aspen Daily News- May 17, 2023
In this column we frequently talk about the challenges of modern parenting, and that’s undoubtedly because these are such universal experiences. Parents of children of any age talk to us every day about their lives, and we know all too well what they’re going through and always want to offer perspective and advice.
When it comes to parenting middle and high schoolers, we often hear the negatives. Our sweet, mostly compliant children may turn overnight into sulky, resentful grouches. Life is described by some parents as a rollercoaster of friendship drama, stress, self-doubt, poor choices and inexplicable hormonal mood swings.
Ugh! Those poor teens. They do tend to get a bad rap. Which is why the middle and high schoolers who visited the Aspen Sister Cities board meeting last week provided such an important and inspiring antidote to the traditional image and a reminder of how wonderful teenagers really are.
Anyone who doesn’t know about the Aspen Sister Cities program has a treat in store and should look at its excellent website. It is a small nonprofit, started in 1966, run by dedicated volunteers and is truly a jewel in Aspen’s crown.
From Aspen’s first sister city — Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany — the program has grown to include relationships with Shimukappu, Japan; Queenstown, New Zealand; Chamonix, France; Bariloche, Argentina; Abetone, Italy; and Davos, Switzerland. The mission of the Sister Cities is stated beautifully as the promotion of world peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation through one individual, one community at a time. There are several kinds of exchange (of artists, doctors and ski patrollers), but the work that is done for student exchange truly goes to the heart of the mission.
Each year, groups of young people from all of Aspen’s schools apply for and travel to sister cities and to stay with families. In exchange, those host students travel here to experience Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. The program requires significant dedication and the participants have to work, raising funds and going through study and preparation for the trips. The most recent group of middle school students visited Abetone and the high schoolers went to Garmisch-Partenkirchen; they all made presentations last week about their exchanges.
In hearing about their experiences, the most striking common theme was that of connection. The students spoke about the simplest things, like eating dinner each night with their host families. In talking about the young people they stayed with, they did so in terms of making “friends for life.” They had learned about our similarities (many and various) and differences (not as many as they had imagined) and described them powerfully and amusingly. It was the family interactions above all that they loved, even beyond the visits and tourism.
And, perhaps surprisingly, they mentioned the peace and even relief of not having access to their cellphones to hijack their thoughts and interactions, because the Sister Cities program does not allow them during these exchanges. This means that the students’ experiences are as pure as possible, and the kids are able to live as much in the moment as possible.
It was clear that not everything during an exchange is easy. The kids had to go cold turkey with their phones and there may well have been homesickness, though last week we didn’t hear about that. One girl described adapting to a new culture and language and visiting foreign schools as creating “discomfort,” but in the same breath she talked about how important it was to have gone through that. And among the fun activities and good times there was seriousness, most poignantly articulated by a young woman from Aspen High School who spoke very thoughtfully about a visit to the Dachau concentration camp.
All of the students’ presentations showed qualities of gratitude, tolerance, an openness to new ideas and a willingness to reach out across countries and cultures to connect. No better illustration of the values of this program could be imagined — especially the key importance of the homestays, and then the reciprocity of sharing our own homes and lives in return.
Our descriptions of Aspen Sister Cities’ experiences may sound over the top, but when parents were asked to share their thoughts, one father could not even speak, because he was so overwhelmed with emotion. Another said his daughter just “glowed” and he had no words to describe how wonderful the exchange had been.
We encourage families to find out about the Sister Cities program. Anyone who is interested in supporting international exchange and positive youth development should consider donating to this important — and inevitably not inexpensive program. Scholarships and financial assistance are a priority for the board and this is a great way to help, so that students from all backgrounds can take part.
There are also opportunities to host adult visitors from our sister cities, and it’s worth remembering that even if you don’t have children, there is huge pleasure to be had from international exchange, and you too may make connections that can both change lives and last a lifetime.
Growing Community is written by Katherine Sand, director of Aspen Family Connections; Renee Giles, AFC’s early childhood connector; and Megan Monaghan, co-manager of Kids First. It runs every other Wednesday in the Aspen Daily News. It features topics of interest related to early childhood, parenting and education. To reach the authors, email email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.