Aspen Sister Cities virtual exchanges continue tradition of cross-cultural connection
Digital interactions replace international travel for local students
It was 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and eight middle school students — four in their homes in Aspen and four in a classroom in Shimukappu, Japan, plus a few teachers and translators on both ends — were practicing their greetings over Zoom: Hellos and konichiwas all around.
Students thanked each other for gifts they sent in December (hats sent to Shimukappu, candy and pens to Aspen). They presented slideshows about holiday traditions. They discussed winter sports (some were bigger fans than others) and tasty treats (mochi was a big hit).
Despite the barrier of a screen and a few thousand miles between them, a tradition of cultural exchange continued: Wednesday’s meeting was the latest in a series of virtual gatherings between local students and their overseas counterparts coordinated by Aspen Sister Cities.
Students would normally meet face to face during international exchanges orchestrated by Aspen Sister Cities. The organization maintains relationships with seven sister cities on four continents: Bariloche, Argentina; Abetone, Italy; Davos, Switzerland; Chamonix, France; Queenstown, New Zealand; Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany; and Shimukappu.
But with world travel off the table due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers have turned to a digital format to keep the spirit of global friendship alive.
An October student exchange with Bariloche was the first iteration; once a month meetings with the students in Shimukappu began late last year and will continue once a month through March.
It may not be the same as a long-haul flight and two weeks in a foreign country, but “it’s the next best thing,” said Jill Sheeley, the president of Aspen Sister Cities. “When life gives you lemons you make lemonade, and that’s what these kids are doing.”
And though a Zoom meeting is no replacement for a cultural immersion, Shimukappu city coordinator Kamala Marsh said that the virtual experience has its value as a learning opportunity and mode of communication. Marsh is a world languages teacher at Aspen Middle School and serves as a liaison and organizer for the Shimukappu exchange.
“When you’re in person, you have to really examine your values, and you have to examine their values, and you have to really be in someone else’s shoes,” Marsh said. “But I think there is a tremendous amount to be learned from meeting people and communicating with them, even virtually. … All I’m hoping is that they get a window opened to another world and another life.”
Marsh has spent nearly two decades volunteering to coordinate the annual exchange, but her history with the organization dates back to the origins of the Aspen-Shimukappu partnership. After the two cities formalized their “sister city” status in 1991, Marsh was the first to participate in an Aspen Sister Cities English teaching program in Shimukappu.
“It changed my life,” Marsh said. “In the end, we learned so much about each other’s cultures. And we each changed in ways that we never imagined would happen.”
Other Aspenites have followed in her footsteps and forged a tradition of connections with a community halfway across the world.
Corey Lucks attended one of the first student exchanges in the early 1990s and returned to Shimukappu after college to participate in the English teaching program. He fell in love, started a family and has been there ever since; he now runs a restaurant with his wife but continues to help with the exchanges and communication between the two cities.
Shimukappu liaison Ben Belinski had the same full circle experience: He first visited when he was in middle school as part of an Aspen Sister Cities exchange and returned last March to begin his tenure in the English teacher role.
Celebrating the two cities’ history — albeit from afar — helps maintain the longstanding connection, Belinski said.
“There’s a strong friendship that we can’t forget about,” Belinski said. “It’s about making sure that students feel connected to each other even across that vast distance. … I’m definitely wanting to encourage as much communication between cultures as possible.”
The Aspen native currently teaches English in Shimukappu through a program established by Aspen Sister Cities and helps facilitate virtual meetings with his students across the pond.
Belinski admits there are challenges to leading the meetings over Zoom — technical difficulties, mostly, and moments when the students need a bit of encouragement to keep the conversation going.
“They’re so into it and so stoked, and then they’re just so reserved and not talkative and shy and scared, so it’s a funky balance,” Belinski said. “There’s so much desire, like they so badly want to be a part of this, and they want to make friends and they want to communicate and learn.”
But the hiccups along the way just make successful connections all the more valuable, Belinski said.
“At its best, I see it as a great way to connect people across the world who might be living different lives but are actually living through very similar circumstances,” Belinski said. “If anything, COVID has really shown how connected the whole world is this year, and I think we just forget about it sometimes, but we’re just so instantaneously bonded with all the other people around the world.”
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In the 2022 iteration of the statewide Teaching and Learning Conditions Colorado survey, 19 educators from Aspen public schools reported that they were considering leaving the field of education altogether at the end of this school year. That accounts for almost 13% of the Aspen School District staff members who completed the survey this year.