What do Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, France, Mexico and the Philippines all have in common? They all have sister cities of Palo Alto where one can go to study abroad and learn about different cultures.
The Sister City program is directed by Neighbors Abroad, a community volunteer organization whose purpose is to promote both international and intercultural understanding. Neighbors Abroad was founded in 1963 after President Eisenhower enacted the Town Affiliation Program. Since then, Neighbors Abroad has won 13 awards from Sister Cities International and recognition from the United Nations and Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce. Palo Alto has six total sister cities: Linköping, Sweden, Enschede, the Netherlands, Tsuchiura, Japan, Albi, France, Oaxaca, Mexico, Palo, and the Philippines. Although not all six cities have this opportunity, it is possible to participate in an exchange program through Neighbors Abroad with Oaxaca, Mexico over the summer. Paly junior Sarah Bramlett chose to do this last summer and was pleased with the experience. “I was in Oaxaca for three weeks and then I came back with my exchange sister Carmina to Palo Alto for three weeks,” Bramlett said. “It was really fun and interesting.” Bramlett and a sophomore at Gunn were the only participants in the program this year. “I think the reason that not many people came is just that it is not very well advertised,” Bramlett said. “I think it was really well organized and it’s a really fun idea and it worked out well for me.” However, 40 years ago this same program to Oaxaca had more participants and a different structure. Christine Hale, one of Paly’s art teachers, participated in this same program during 1972 and had a very rewarding experience. “[I went] between my junior and senior year,” Hale said. “I had been studying Spanish on the AP track and that was the main program that was available for students [at that time] in terms of going and having a group experience.” While Bramlett was in Mexico, she stayed with a family and would go on trips with them, such as to the ruins or visiting the town markets. Similarly, Hale stayed with a family in Oaxaca and both Bramlett and Hale were featured in the Oaxacan newspaper while they were there. “Being in the newspaper was really cool,” Bramlett said. “We got to meet the town mayor which was also pretty fun.” Afterwards, Bramlett and her exchange student came back to Palo Alto where the Carmina stayed for three weeks. “We visited San Francisco and went to Cambodia,” Bramlett said. “We did a lot of Bay Area activities together and it was cool to show her what it’s like where I live.” However, Hale did not host a Oaxacan exchange student in California, and she stayed in Oaxaca for six weeks over the summer, as opposed to Bramlett’s three weeks. Hale also took morning classes with 16 other students in the program. “Students lived with families and we would go on field trips then have classes during weekdays,” Hale said. “It was a nice balance of structured and unstructured and I got to do all of these things [besides classes] on my own.” One interesting cultural experience Hale had while she was there was witnessing a tradition called “Dar la vuelta” in which teenagers gather in the town square. “Boys would walk in one direction and the girls would walk in another,” Hale said. “It was a sort of flirtation. My host sister had a [boyfriend] who brought people to serenade her in the middle of the night, and this was not just being cute-sy. We stood on the balcony while they serenaded her; t was amazing.” Another exchange program that Neighbors Abroad conducts is with Tsuchiura, Palo Alto’s sister city in Japan. Many students may be more familiar with this program because it operates through PAUSD’s middle schools. In this program, students from Japan come to Palo Alto and have a buddy with whom they stay and follow around at school. During the summer, students from Palo Alto go to visit Tsuchiura and other cities like Hiroshima and Kyoto. Along with student exchanges that offer cultural learning about other countries, the Neighbors Abroad program features many projects that are currently happening in other parts of the world. For example, nine scholarships are annually awarded to students in Palo, Leyte of the Philippines. In Oaxaca, the Albergue Infantil Josefino project works to create a home for abandoned, orphaned or abused children. Palo Alto is very involved with their sister cities in other ways, such as band trips around the world. Paly’s Jazz Band has visited and performed in Enschede, The Netherlands twice as well as in Albi, France. Linköping, Sweden contributed the FjarrenVanner (Foreign Friends) plank sculpture to Palo Alto’s art scene in 1989. Conversely, a Palo Alto citizen painted a mural on Linköping’s concert hall in 1991. A display with information regarding Palo Alto’s sister cities can be seen in front of the City Hall on Hamilton Street and information is available on www.paloaltoonline.org