Sister cities exchange students


Iris Raschbacher, an Austrian student, performs a solo on her cello at the Sister City banquet. Rasbacher played with her American host student, Ariel Walton, who is also a proud musician.

From April 11 to April 19, teenagers from Austria will be traveling from their home in St. Polten to spend a week in Altoona, PA.  They will be staying with students from the Altoona area and will not only spend time in school with them, but will also be seeing historical landmarks.  The students housing the Austrians are: Ariel Walton, Sarah Harmon, Abigail Frank, Ryan Mcconville and Coby Bernhart-Horton.

The students of the junior high, the high school, and of the Austrian students are receiving this opportunity due a program called ‘Our Sister City,’ or ‘Sister Cities United,’ which is an exchange program between two cities that are alike but on different part of the world.

“Sister City is any ownership between a city and a similar city elsewhere in the world.  There’s actually a program called ‘Sister Cities United.’ Every big city in the U.S. has a sister city, some have multiple,  but Altoona has one.  But yeah, a sister city is just a partnership between a city and another city around the world.  The whole idea is to promote cultural exchange between those two cities and to do whatever they can to help bridge the two areas together.  What we do around here is exchange–it’s most of the high school kids–we’ll bring adult and high school kids over here and we’ll send adults and high school kids over there,” John Blough, a civics teacher at the junior high who’s involved in the program said.

All of the students, both American and Austrian, seemed to find out from their teachers.

“We were offered a chance by our teachers who handed out flyers and then I was interested, so my mom contacted the lady in charge of the program to see if I could take part of it,” Ariel Walton, an American ninth grader said.

“Well, Mr. Blough was talking about it in Mock Trial and earlier in the school year, and I thought I’d be really interested in it because it’d be really cool to go to Austria in 2016,” Sarah Harmon, an American ninth grader said.

Along with Blough, other teachers at AAJHS have been promoting this opportunity.

“My German teacher, Mr. Lang, was suggesting it in class,” Ryan Mcconville, an American ninth grader said.

All of the Austrians got the proposal for the exchange program during their English class.

“It was only offered to my English class because in Austria we have a tenth grade English trip; my teacher offered us to go to the states,” Christoph Salcer, an Austrian student said.

The students from St. Polten decided as a class, and almost all of them attended the trip.

“We decided with the class; the class could decide between Ireland and Altoona, and we thought it’d be fun if we’d come here,” Mvona Lovric, and Austrian student said.

Their reasons to why they chose Altoona to the other options vary.

“Uh, yeah, I think it’s really cool to see how the school system in the U.S. works.  Our school are pretty different because we don’t change classrooms all the time, and we are allowed to bring our backpacks to class.. and I want to meet new people and make friends,” Salcer said.

“I want to learn about how people live in different countries and continents–and yeah, practicing my English words,” Iris Raschvacher, an Austrian student said.

The junior high school students’ opinions on why they wanted to take part in the program varied also.

“I saw it as a good opportunity for me to take part in because there’s a mutual benefit since she’s staying over here, that means if I ever want to try travel, I can stay at her house,” Walton said.

“I was interested in learning how Austrian kids thought how American students were and I wanted to learn more about Austria,” Mcconville said.

“Well, I already knew about it because a few years ago my sister’s friend did it and I just thought it was a really cool experience and I heard that some of us got to go to Austria also so,” Abigail Frank, an American student said.

Blough is very compassionate when it comes to this program.

“I’ve been doing this for 11 years now; I heard about it when I was in high school and I’ve hosted a couple times myself.  We’ve been doing exchanges really going back to year 2000, when the program started.  I’ve been involved since 2004, and we have at least three groups come over since then; we’ve sent to two over to Austria and this is the newest group that will be coming over is definitely over a dozen students,” Blough said.

Due to how long he’s been a part of this program, Blough has definitely realized just why he enjoys them coming here so much.

“The thing I get really excited about is bringing the kids over here and kind of being the mediator between the kids and the junior high because I help organize a lot of the things that go on with the Sister City program as a member of the committee.  It’s nice to see the kids come over here and hopefully feel welcome and accepted here from everyone and that’s always been the case,” Blough said.

The American students will be taking the Austrians to many different places during the time period they’re here.

“I know on Saturday I’m taking her to a concert, which is really exciting because she’s really into classical stuff. Sunday we’re going to take her to State College for my rehearsal for CPYO, and then we’re also going to have to rehearse with a few other people because on Wednesday we’re performing at a function together,” Walton said.

“I’m going to show them Michael Jackson and we’re going to show her a drive-in, and we’re going to show them the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburg and then the mall too,” Harmon said.

“Through the program they ask the kids what they want to do, and he was interested in going to see the 9/11 crash site, so we’re taking him out to see that.  Then, he is going to take some tours around with the other exchange students around Altoona,” Mcconville said.

“We already took them to Pittsburgh, but they’re going to Fort Roberdeau and State College, and we’re going to take them to the movies sometime, and to sports events so they can see some of that stuff too,” Frank said.

Though Altoona is similar to St. Polten, the Austrian students noticed small differences between the school and city.

“The motorway crosses the city, it goes straight through, and in my city it just crosses.  Mine isn’t straight through the city,” Salcer said.

“This school is so different than my school in my hometown,” Raschvacher said.  “First of all, the hallways are much bigger and wider and there are a lot more lockers.  There are a lot more students.  The classrooms are also a lot bigger, and you have different classes than I have and also a different system.  And your breaks are a lot shorter than ours.”

The Austrian students got the opportunity to shadow the American students at their school during the time they were here.  There were also mixed opinions on how that would go.

“At first I thought them coming to our school was going to be a little weird because I thought I’d have to explain everything to them.  But, I mean, they understand what’s going on pretty well,” Frank said.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how he copes with my friends, my classes, and see what differences there are,” Mcconville said.

“I think that it’ll be kind of cool, but I’m kind of scared for how all the classmates are going to react to them coming here because I feel like they’ll intimidate them in a way,” Harmon said.

“I think she’s going to realize that public school life sucks a lot, she’ll realize it’s not as fun as she thought to be in school.  But I think it’ll be a good experience for her because she can compare and contrast and I’ll get to learn more,” Walton said.

The American students were also a little worried about the living arrangements.

“If it wasn’t somebody that I talked to before, I’d be kind of creeped out, but I’ve been talking to my girl a lot and we’re pretty familiar with each other so it’s okay,” Harmon said.

“When I first heard about the program, I was really excited, and then once I thought about it more I got kind of nervous but I won’t know until he shows up.  I’m pretty excited for it,” Mcconville said.

Though, others didn’t think it was such a big deal.

“Well, I’ve had people in my house before, but they weren’t from out of the country.  It’s just kind of like having a sleepover with somebody you don’t that well for like a week straight,” Frank said.

Since the exchange program is a two-way street, some American students have been invited to go to St. Polten in 2016; those from the junior high are Sarah Hamon and Abigail Frank.

“I’m a little nervous because I’m scared that I won’t like it,” Frank said.

Harmon’s answer is similar to Frank’s.

“I’m going to be really scared, but at the same time I’m going to be very interested to see how all the students are in their own country and what they do differently than us,” Harmon said.

For future Austrian exchange opportunities Blough always knows what to say to persuade his students into taking one in.

“I tell my kids to do this because we don’t really have anything else at our school that is even comparable of this–there’s not class that really is about cultural difference between the U.S. and other countries.  I mean, we kind of have that anthropology but nothing like this. So this is one of those things where you do this, in addition to having fun and getting to meet new friends from thousands of miles across the world, it’s just a really cool opportunity to learn about the government of Austria, different cultures, sociological trends–there’s just a ton of things, even economically things, that are different between the U.S. and Austria and I just think it’s unparallel to any class you can take here.  So that’s why I always encourage people to do this program.  You know, it’s also a good chance to learn about diplomacy which, again, is a lot of something people don’t really get to engage into that much,” Blough said.

But when it comes down to it, the Austrian students seem to be really enjoying Altoona.

“Uh, yeah, I think it’s really cool to see how the school system in the U.S. works.  Our school are pretty different because we don’t change classrooms all the time and we are allowed to bring our backpacks to class,” Salcer said

“I think it’s cool, I mean, you get to meet new people and you get to know everything better,” Lovric said.

“For somebody who’s from another continent and country, America is pretty interesting,” Raschvacher said.


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