Student exchanges a boon for Aspen Sister Cities program

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Ryan Slabaugh/The Aspen TimesMaud Ravanel, left, a teacher at Lycee Frison-Roche in Chamonix, France, is pictured with students Ludivine Budria and Lisa Ducrot, both 16. They are currently visiting the area through an arrangement with the Aspen Sister Cities program.

ASPEN – A visit last week and this week by a French schoolteacher serves as an example of how the Aspen Sister Cities exchanges have come full circle, officials affiliated with the program say.

Maud Ravenel, a chaperone for two teenage girls and five teenage boys who attend Lycee Frison-Roche in Chamonix, France, first came to Aspen through the Sister Cities program in 1987 at the tender age of 8.

Ravenel doesn’t remember everything about that trip some 24 years ago, which occurred during an Aspen offseason. She recalls walking through the Smuggler Mine, visiting a downvalley ranch and Glenwood Springs, and traveling to Arches National Park in Utah. She also visited the state Capitol in Denver.

“I was very small, and I didn’t speak English at all,” Ravenel said. “I think I was too small to come for two weeks. I didn’t speak English, and it was hard to communicate.”

Nowadays, the nonprofit program doesn’t accept children who are as young as Ravenel was then. Exchanges involve middle school and high school students.

But the program – with roots that date back to 1966 through a relationship with Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany – has expanded over the past two decades with the addition of five more sister cities and an emphasis on helping kids in lieu of the previous focus on adult professional exchanges, President Don Sheeley said.

“Our main focus has been on the youth exchanges,” Sheeley said. “That was my big focus when I became president over 20 years ago – to send kids from the Aspen area to live with another family in some other country and then bring kids from over there to Aspen to live with a family.

“We’re trying to promote world peace, and we’re trying to give people a better understanding of different cultures, different languages and the way people are.”

In addition to Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Chamonix, Aspen’s sister cities are Davos, Switzerland; Queenstown, New Zealand; Shimmukappu, Japan; and San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina. Aspen has a coordinator or “chairman” for each city who helps to maintain ties with the foreign communities and works out details of the student and professional exchanges in conjunction with other volunteers.

Each sister city has a different level of participation, Sheeley said. Over the past year, student exchanges – some one-way, others two-way – have taken place with all of Aspen’s sister cities except for Davos, Sheeley said.

“It’s tough with Davos,” he said. “They speak English fine, but you’re dealing with the government over there. They don’t have a citizens committee in place, so it’s difficult to get a student exchange going with them. We do a lot of professional things with them, but as far as the students go, they’re just very strict about what can and can’t happen.”

The program is open to students in the Aspen area.

The local program receives a stipend from the city of Aspen and also raises money from other sources. The money is used to provide scholarships to students who are chosen to visit the other countries following a thorough screening process, Sheeley said. The money also assists with professional trips, such as when Mayor Mick Ireland visited a few of the European sister cities last summer.

Abetone, a ski town in the Italian region of Tuscany, wants to become part of Aspen’s international family. On Jan. 10, Alessandro Motta, the consulate general for Italy representing Colorado and the Midwest, pitched Abetone as a good fit for the Aspen Sister Cities program. He told the organization’s board members about Abetone’s status as a world-class ski resort, its close proximity to other Italian places of interest such as Florence and recent investment in high-speed lifts, a gondola, restaurants and nightlife.

It was Motta’s second trip to Aspen in a year to discuss the possibility of joining the program. Abetone has been working for many months to meet the criteria for the program, forming its own Sister Cities committee and lining up sponsors to help fund its projects, he said.

“This would be an agreement not just about sports and skiing but culture and education,” Motta said last month. “Kids will be the most important, the fundamental part of the exchange. This is an occasion for kids to open their mind to new experiences and get into contact with a new world and a new language with people their own age.”

Sheeley said there’s usually a two-year courtship period with potential sister cities.

“My feeling is we need to pursue it,” he said. “They send a delegation over here, we send a delegation over there. We figure out what works, and after that, we make a decision.”

The criteria for inclusion vary, but a city’s chances are good “if they have a strong person over there who wants to make it work and if we have a strong person on our side to make it work,” Sheeley said.

“A lot of times we’ve found that if we’re dealing with governments, it doesn’t work that well. You have to have a strong citizen committee to make it work,” he said.

A group from Queenstown came to Aspen in January. The Chamonix students are in Aspen now – they arrived on Feb. 5 – and a cadre of Aspen middle school students will travel to Chamonix on March 28. A typical exchange lasts 10 days to two weeks.

Jill Sheeley, who chairs the Aspen committee for Queenstown, said foreign students always seem to enjoy a visit to Glenwood Springs.

“We have this quaint little town, but they love to go to Glenwood,” she said. “That’s always a highlight for our exchangees. They go crazy over the gondola and the caves and Walmart and places to shop. It’s a novelty.”

Ravenel said her main impression of Aspen is that it’s wealthier than Chamonix. She also said Aspen High School is interesting because the class sizes, in terms of the number of students, are much smaller than at her school, where she teaches history.

She said classroom discipline is more strict in France than at the Aspen school, where students can eat and drink and check phone messages.

The local Sister Cities board meets once a month. The next meeting will be held Tuesday at City Hall starting at 5 p.m., and the public is invited.