Sister Cities of Nashville: Expanding Global Cultural Exchange from High School to College

In 2013, 40 Student Ambassadors from the Nashville area were chosen to participate in a global cultural immersion experience through the Sister Cities of Nashville (SCN) High School Student Ambassador Program. With informational materials in tow, the Student Ambassadors traveled to their host countries to embark on an extraordinary opportunity to become fully immersed in the cultures and languages they had been studying in school.

For many students, this was their first time traveling outside of the U.S., causing each to bring excitement and curiosity with them as they journeyed to the sister cities of Caen, France, Magdeburg, Germany, Mendoza, Argentina, and Taiyuan, China. Upon arrival, each Student Ambassador was matched with a host family and language teacher to ensure they were acquainted to the program and overall cultural experience safely and properly.

According to Heather Cochran Cunningham, the Executive Director of Sister Cities of Nashville, “many felt like it was an experience of a lifetime. They enjoyed making new friends, seeing and experiencing another part of the world, and practicing their foreign language skills. They also report that while they may have been nervous and anxious upon departure, it was well worth the effort they made to step out of their comfort zone and experience something totally new.”

During their two-week summer stay, students participated in several activities organized by each individual host city. Activities vary, but involve opportunities for students to truly grasp what daily life is like in each location. When students from other sister cities visit SCN in exchange, most host families takes their visiting student to see their local high school, meet the Mayor of Nashville, and out for fun activities such as going to the Nashville Zoo or to a Predators Hockey game.

After returning from their exchange programs, students are highly encouraged to continue their involvement with SCN to sustain the intercultural knowledge they have gained and help spread their new global awareness to others in the community. The SCN Youth Advisory Board is now in place and in 2013-2014, comprises 22 members representing nine schools throughout the area, allowing alumni to suggest program activities based on their own experiences, recruit future Student Ambassadors, and to serve as volunteers at SCN related events such as the annual World of Friendship fundraiser, the Celebrate Nashville festival, and the Cherry Blossom Walk.

Thanks to SCN’s relationship with Mendoza, two universities, Belmont University in Nashville, and Universidad de Cuyo in Mendoza, partnered to offer a cross-cultural academic experience to their respective students. The idea of the collaboration originally came about after 10 Belmont students traveled to Argentina in 2012 as part of an international entrepreneurship course offered in May.

While there, the Belmont students worked with Cuyo students in cross-cultural teams on a business plan project. In 2013, the exchange program was implemented for both Cuyo students to visit Nashville and for Belmont students in Mendoza, and was so successful that the program is planned to recur in 2014.

While reflecting upon SCN’s overall effect on the Nashville community, Cunningham said, “We’re helping to build more global citizens in an era in which that goal is increasingly important. We also help broaden the minds and experiences of many young people in our community with a unique experience that can have a significant impact on their intercultural and personal development. Studies have demonstrated that students who participate in cultural exchanges achieve greater understanding of their own cultural biases, develop more sophisticated way of looking at the world, seek a greater diversity of friends, and report increased self-confidence and maturation.”

Students who are interested in applying to the SCN High School Student Ambassador program are encouraged to read alumni testimonials and follow the instructions online for the application process. SCN plans to offer programs in Tamworth, Australia and Kamakura, Japan in the near future as these new partnerships develop.

Although the Student Ambassador program is relatively inexpensive (students pay for their flight and a $250 application fee), SCN understands that some students are unable to afford the costs associated with the trip. SCN is happy to offer partial need-based financial aid and fundraising opportunities so that each interested and qualified candidate has a fair chance at participating in this extraordinary experience.

For students who would like to apply to their hometown’s Sister Cities High School Exchange program, please visit the SCI website for more information.