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VOL. 132 | NO. 79 | Thursday, April 20, 2017

MIM Exchange Students Visit Colombia as Memphis Ambassadors

BY K. DENISE JENNINGS, Special to The Daily News

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The Memphis in May International Festival has been a local fixture since the 1970s, and everyone knows about the music and barbecue festivals, but a significant and little known student exchange program that happens each year with the honored country might just be the iconic festival’s biggest long-term contribution.

Memphis and Colombian high school students stop for a photo while checking out shops in Bogota as part of the Memphis in May Student Exchange Program this month.

(Submitted)

The Memphis in May International Festival Student Exchange began in 1989. Every year in April, it sends a group of upper-class high school students from various backgrounds and parts of the city to travel to the honored country to stay in host family homes with youths their age. This year’s honored country is Colombia.

The students toured and learned about the history and culture of Colombia, but they were also charged with being Memphis ambassadors and equipped with broad knowledge and understanding of the history and culture that Memphis has brought to the world. Following their visit, their Colombian peers made a similar trip to Memphis.

Both groups of students are chosen based on a combination of academic achievement, community service and communications skills and have to make it through an application and subsequent interview process. A teacher chaperone is chosen by a similar process. This year, Lausanne Collegiate School was the host school when the Colombian students visited Memphis, welcoming them for classes and meals.

The experience has far-reaching effects for the students who participate, according to Jan Coleman, a retired professor who was on this year’s selection committee.

“Originally, a lot of this was planned to educate the city about other places as well as to increase commerce for Memphis,” Coleman said. “Every one of these students will tell you that they thought they were taking Memphis to (Colombia), and they never thought about how much they would gain. Seeing the world and problem-solving helps them to become more mature and it gives them confidence.”

Memphis in May prepares the chosen students in advance with a broad knowledge of Memphis culture and history and it’s significance so they can be effective ambassadors.

“They’re so prepared when they go there that they know how to speak up about Memphis,” said Coleman.

Coleman was impressed with the group of students selected to go to Colombia and their diverse strengths and talents.

“These are the kids that you want to go to college and come back to Memphis and be business leaders,” she said.

Not only are friendships forged with host families, but the relationships the kids from Memphis build with each other are important for the future of the city.

“I am sure all these kids will be friends forever,” Coleman said. “They’re from such diverse homes and parts of town, and that really is the future of Memphis.”

Mary Delgado, a Christian Brothers High School Spanish teacher who was chosen to be the chaperone on this year’s trip, said every experience that she had was brand new to her, even though her husband is Colombian and she had been to his home, which is far from Bogota where MIM students were.

Although the culture was vastly different, the students could still see that people around the world have so much more in common than not, and that teenagers are virtually the same wherever you go.

“Going on a trip like this helps you be better in the future at connecting with your fellow man,” Delgado said. “Everyone is unique and brings something to the table and there is always something in everyone worth celebrating.”

Delgado has had former students participate in the Memphis in May exchange program and says that with each of them, it helped broaden their horizons.

“I think exchange programs like this are important because they allow students to appreciate other cultures’ differences, but also realize how similar we all are,” said Allie Haynes, a Memphis exchange student who said her favorite experience was watching the Colombia versus Ecuador soccer game and eating empanadas with her host family. “It felt like a Colombian Super Bowl!”

Haynes said the Colombian people are very easygoing.

“I would love to incorporate this attitude now that I’m back in Memphis … we should really spend more time resting and appreciating friends and family,” she said.

Gillian Stewart, another Memphis exchange student, said she loved how warmly the Colombian people welcomed them and how it contrasted with how Americans often greet people with different backgrounds. She also learned that when Spain colonized Colombia, it disregarded the indigenous Colombians, similar to events in America, and now the Colombian people show honor to the indigenous people.

“I would recommend programs like this to all young people,” Stewart said. “I have learned so much and honestly think I am more well-rounded. I have seen another side of life and another perspective, and different perspectives are so important when trying to make a change in your world.”

Laura Montoya, one of the Colombian exchange students, said while it was hard to pick out a favorite Memphis experience, it would have to be the Memphis Grizzlies game.

“The whole stadium had such as strong positive vibe. Being with my friends and being able to share that moment with them was without a doubt mind-blowing,” Montoya said.

Montoya’s takeaways from this experience really mirrored her Memphis friends’ impressions.

“This trip definitely opened my eyes,” she said. “Sometimes you forget there are different stories and people out there, that not everything revolves around our culture and not everyone will act the same way as you do. I got to get a glimpse of the past and culture of another city and country. Not everything is the same everywhere. Even if there are some similarities, there will be some differences, and from this we have to learn, because I think that is the first step in accepting different cultures, religions, beliefs and people.”

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