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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Transformative Travels: Cincinnati Youth Ambassadors in New Taipei City

By Mary Casey-Sturk

When is an exchange program so much more than meets the eye? One where high school students from Cincinnati get to practice a new language, explore another culture and develop ways of being comfortable in their own skin. 

Host parents meeting Cincinnati Exchange Students Gordon Huston (far left) & Patrick Rogers (second from left) at Taiwan Airport
Like many programs for exchange students, you visit a new country, make new friends and stay with a host family. These students do so much more, with the important endorsements of the Sister Cities involved, and that is why they are proudly referred to as Youth Ambassadors. 

One aspect that differs for the families involved in the New Taipei City Sister City Youth Ambassadors Program is these students have the opportunity to meet again, and soon, when students from New Taipai City visit Cincinnati later in the year. Knowledge grows along with bonds of friendship.

Key Student Exchange Program Leaders:  Cincinnati Student Exchange Program Leader Janet Huston, Cincinnati Student Exchange Program Chair Jack Chung, Principal Yung-Yang Tsao of Guang Fu High School, Principal Tsung Min Wu of Zhu-Wei High School, Director Yi-Jen Wu – New Taipei City Education Department
Cincinnati has nine Sister Cities including Liuzhou, China; Nancy, France; Munich, Germany; Gifu, Japan; Kharkiv, Ukraine; Harare, Zimbabwe; Amman, Jordan and New Taipei City, Taiwan.  The Youth Ambassador program with New Tapei City is in its sixth year and welcomes applications from Cincinnati high school sophomores and juniors.

Annually, up to 30 students from Cincinnati have stayed, played and learned in New Taipei City every June; each year in the late fall, up to 30 students from New Taipei City visit Cincinnati for the same experience. Each exchange is approximately two-three weeks and the cost for Cincinnati students is around $3,000, which is raised through community support.

National Palace Museum 
Since 1994, New Taipei City has been a Sister City with Cincinnati. Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) was founded in 1912, making it the first democratic republic in Asia. In 1949, the government moved to Taiwan and maintained jurisdiction over an area including several islands of Taiwan. 

New Taipei City, in northern Taiwan, is the most populous city with approximately 4,000,000 residents. While Mandarin is spoken in Taiwan, and many of the Youth Ambassadors speak Mandarin, they are encouraged to use English when with their host families in order for the families to practice their English. Staying with host families provides the chance to communicate with each other on a personal level. 

Grand Hotel in Taipei
The Youth Ambassadors stay with host families in a variety of settings, from rural to urban, attend a variety of high schools and have the opportunity to visit sites and attend activities in their free time. They do attend school with their host student, and, like any other high school student, participate fully in classes and trainings. In addition to classes one from a Western culture would expect, there are also classes steeped in Taiwanese culture. For instance, when learning the proper tea ceremony, it starts with a step you may not expect -  actually making the tea set!

When the students from New Taipei City visit Cincinnati, they also stay with host families and attend the high school of their host Youth Ambassador. For many of these kids, it’s their first trip abroad, their first time away from home and their first time seeing snow! In addition to classroom time, they visit local attractions such as the Cincinnati Zoo and museums, they try regional cuisine.  One student described their favorite restaurant in Cincinnati called “Skyline ‘Chilly.’ There were a lot of yummy dishes with thick cheese which tasted very good. One of the most impressive dishes was cheese spaghetti. Hope I have a chance to taste it again.” 

Welcome Drum Team at ShenKeng Junior High School 
Of course, they are referring to Cincinnati staple, Skyline Chili. This exchange allows them to practice English, visit American colleges and learn about American culture and history. 

Before, during and well after the exchanges, the Youth Ambassadors stay in touch via email and social media, continuing to build upon the relationships they’ve developed.

Buddhist monk and Janet Huston 
Hyde Park resident Janet Huston has worn many hats for this program: parent, host parent and chaperone.  Huston shares her thoughts about the experience. 

“I can’t begin to explain how blessed I feel our whole family has been by becoming involved in this program. To say that a new world (or part of a world) was opened up to us, would be an understatement. All of our lives have been made so much richer, in so many countless ways. It is hard to believe that a little ‘blurb’ in the school’s weekly phone message six years ago started it all. 

Student Ru-Yu Lien from Rui Fang High School and Gordon Huston with.  “Golden Waterfall” seen in the background
“You hear a lot about various student exchanges, but the fact that this was through the Sister Cities Program really got my attention. I knew what they were about as a group, and I felt that this was an exchange that would be important.” 

She continues, “The fact that this exchange program was established though a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ between the City of Cincinnati and New Taipei City is an incredibly important aspect. This is why the students who participate are called ‘Youth Ambassadors,’ not exchange students. They are truly considered ambassadors representing their school, their city and their country. As a parent this was important to me and it made a difference in my mind.” 

Huston continues her commitment to this program, “Since our first involvement, I have actually joined the Cincinnati Sister City Board, become part of the committee that over-sees the program and we have been a host family for two incoming Taiwanese students! These two young people, Darren and Wei, call themselves the Taiwanese branch of the Huston family, and we stay in regular contact with them! I was a chaperone for the 2018 outbound exchange, and my husband was actually able to join the delegation for the second week in Taiwan.

Pottery making at Yingge Vocational High School - Cincinnati Exchange Student Gordon Huston (center) learning how to make pottery 
“Our Taiwanese hosts have also gone to great lengths to welcome and show our students kindness throughout the entire trip. The two weeks in New Taipei City are set-up to be sure that our kids experience as much of the country’s unique culture as possible, from their host family’s daily lifestyle to unique events such as the Dragon Boat Races.  It is really amazing to see how excited some of the schools are to have us a visitors. They literally ‘roll out the red’ drums!!” shares Huston.
Gordon Huston, also of Hyde Park, was enthusiastic about his experience as a Youth Ambassador, “Taiwan was great! I had a really kind and fun host family. My friend Patrick (Rogers) and I actually stayed with the same family. They took us to a wedding with them, and it was really different than any I have been to at home.”

“My favorite part of the trip was actually just being with my host family. I still keep in contact with my host sibling, Nick, and my host mom, Michelle. They asked me to send photos of our home at  Christmastime. They wanted to know what Christmas in America actually looked like, and I sent pictures of our tree and holiday dinner.”

Dr. Jack Chung has been involved with this program since the beginning and shared his thoughts on the value of the program -  for Cincinnati and the students.

“Host Student/Sibling” Nick Chuan, and Cincinnati Youth Ambassadors Patrick Rogers (center), and Gordon Huston (right) saying farewell to each other at Taiwan Taoyuan Airport 
“With a vision to provide the future generation an opportunity to experience different cultures, build up international friendship and expand personal perspectives irrespective of the family economic status, Mayor Mallory of Cincinnati and Mayor Chu of New Taipei City signed a High School Student Exchange Program Memorandum of Understanding in 2012. Since then, there have been five outbound exchanges and six inbound exchanges with over 200 Youth Ambassadors, Chaperones, and Host Families from each city participating in the program. The program is estimated to generate over a quarter million dollars of economic impact to Cincinnati each year.

“In addition to home-stay, the exchange programs in both cities include diverse and colorful cultural, educational and recreational activities to enrich the exchange experience. The exchange program turned out to be exceptionally successful. The exchange students all returned with unforgettable and beautiful memories, lasting friendship and a better understanding of the global community. They accomplished the best grassroots diplomacy between the two cities. They can be expected to serve as a role model for their peers and leverage their exchange experience to further promote the Sister City relationship between the two cities and to cultivate improved understanding between countries and peoples around the world.”

Cincinnati’s Youth Ambassadors, and all those involved, hope this rewarding program continues well into the future so others will have this unique opportunity to build relationships with peers from their Sister City.

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