Exchange program offers life lessons, global awareness |

Exchange program offers life lessons, global awareness

ASPEN – If you looked around Aspen Middle School last week, you might have seen a few new faces. Next week, Aspen High will be home to some new students – if only for a week or two.

The Sister Cities Student Exchange Program is an annual tradition at the Aspen schools. And, according to its organizers, it’s an important part of the local curriculum.

“The whole idea is to promote global awareness,” said Georgina Levey, an Aspen Middle School teacher who has served as coordinator of the student exchange program for the past 13 years. “It’s a chance to create awareness and understanding. But just as important, it’s a chance to create relationships.

“The bonds that are built between the students from our sister cities are amazing. It is an incredible opportunity – a life lesson – for all of these kids.”

At the middle school level (students from Aspen Middle School, Aspen Community School and Aspen Country Day School are invited to participate), student exchanges usually take place between Aspen and three of its sister cities: Shimmukappu, Japan; Bariloche, Argentina; and Chamonix, France. Students from Bariloche visited Aspen in the fall, and students from Shimmukappu were here last week. In the spring, Aspen students will go abroad.

At the high school level, student exchanges include Chamonix and Bariloche as well as Queenstown, New Zealand. A contingent from the latter will be in Aspen next week. French students will visit in February.

“A lot of kids are involved in this every year, and it can be a life-changing thing,” Levey said, sharing the story of an Aspen High graduate who went on to teach and make his home in Shimmukappu, where he did a student exchange.

Some might argue that Aspen’s sister cities mirror our resort town and, as such, do not offer a real-world travel experience. Levey understands that perspective but begs to differ.

“Yes, some of these sister cities are bubbles, but they are stepping stones,” she said. “Remember the ages of the kids who participate – much of their learning comes from living with another family and accepting these kids into their homes, which is easier when the kids have something in common. Shock value doesn’t always work.”

Plus, the exchange program is about more than just the kids who participate in it. For example, when students visit Bariloche this spring, much of their attention will be on the active volcano there. It’s a lesson they will bring back and share with their classmates.

For the students who visit Aspen, the stories they bring home – of skiing the local mountains, going to the recreation center and learning about mining-town history, among other things – are life lessons.

“When a student’s eyes are opened to what is possible, that’s when this program is successful,” Levey said. “To watch kids grow, both our students and the students who visit us, is the reason I keep doing this. It makes it all worthwhile.”

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