Exchange Testimonials

Katja Zengel (2016 Ambassador, Amador)

Why would one think it would be a good idea to stay in a foreign country with complete strangers? Thoughts were racing through my head a mile a minute. In truth, I was scared of stepping over the boundary of my comfort zone. Having completed Spanish IV in school, I had an extensive knowledge of Spanish grammar and vocabulary, but putting that knowledge to use was a different story. I was not as comfortable speaking Spanish as I was conjugating a verb, therefore I was apprehensive about traveling to a country where I would be fully immersed in the language. As a delegate from Pleasanton traveling to our sister city, Tulancingo, Mexico, I wondered what my host family would say when they met me. As I boarded the plane bound for Mexico City, I became engulfed in a blanket of nervousness. I reassured myself and put on a brave face.
 
After the plane landed, I exited the terminal and began to search the crowd for my new family. A colorful sign that read “Bienvenido, Katja”, with a group of smiling people behind it, immediately caught my eye. They all hugged me, and I began to relax with this warm welcome. Maybe my time in Mexico was not going to be as terrifying as I had anticipated.
 
Over the next three weeks, I absorbed the culture and became immersed in the language and community. Despite my proficiency in Spanish, I found conversing with native speakers a bit daunting. To my surprise, people went out of their way to help me with minor language barriers, which put me at ease. As I built up my courage over the next few weeks, speaking became smoother and the words easily rolled off my tongue. When the time came to leave, I was heartbroken. I felt as though I were leaving a part of myself in Mexico. Each person’s welcoming kindness and compassion expelled all of my doubts about experiencing a new and different culture with strangers that quickly became friends.
 
As I boarded the plane home, I promised myself I would be back. I realized that this experience has showed me that I should have faith in myself, and that I will be able to communicate with other people, whatever the circumstance. From my experience in Mexico I have gained a confidence that I carry with me whenever I step into a new situation, something I will have with me for the rest of my life. As I returned home, a twinge of excitement emerged at the thought of my next foreign adventure
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Sarah Crawford, 2015 Ambassador, Foothill

Through this six-week summer exchange, I gained friends I will never forget. Before they got here, I was afraid it would be awkward or I would not like the person who was staying with me. After I met Andi, we immediately clicked. I admit, the first day or two there were some moments where I did not know what to say but that is expected when the first time you meet someone is when they start living with you. However, with Andi, there was not a moment I did not think we would become friends. What I did not expect was how much I would fall in love with her. I know that sounds strange but by the end of our six weeks, saying goodbye to my new sister was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Even though I knew I would see her as soon as I possibly could, it hurt knowing I would not see her every day.

I also became very close with many people I met in Mexico. One of my favorite parts of the program was meeting so many new people. If you know me, I am a very social person. I have never had a problem talking to anyone I meet. While I was in Mexico, I had to learn to communicate with people in a language that I did not always understand. Luckily, many of the kids spoke some English and could help me if I needed it.

In the end, I know this program helped me grow and mature as a person. Teaching me to make the best of all situations, and how to feel comfortable with new people that will soon become family. I would like to thank all the people who gave me this opportunity that has truly changed my life. 

Serena Carmona-Hester (2014 Ambassador, Foothill)

This past summer has honestly been the most unforgettable experience ever.  The families that I was fortunate enough to stay with in Mexico gave me a true taste of life and culture in a foreign country.  Even if I had only had one hour with these people, I will always remember the love and warmth I received from everyone I met. Their welcoming energy has honestly inspired me to live my life with open arms and an open mind. Coming back to Pleasanton only makes me more excited for my next visit back with all the people that I grew so amazingly close to in a such a short amount of time. 

Sarah Keene, (2014 Ambassador, Amador)

Mexico was an amazing experience! I preferred the part in Mexico to the part here, probably because it was new and different. We went to the pyramids and that was awesome. It was so pretty and mind blowing to be walking the ruins of a place that was once somebody’s city. My conversational Spanish definitely improved. So far I've stayed in contact with my host families and I think I will remain friends with the girls. The "garden" downtown area was really fun to hang out and walk around in. We didn't only stay in Hidalgo but we also visited other states and cities. The culture is different and so beautiful. In Guatamajara (sorry I can't spell) we went on a tour of a city with a traditional mariachi band and learned about some of the history, traditions, songs, and dances of the places. The food was amazing; I crave it all the time. One of the best was kostras, which was a cheese tortilla thing with different meats, and my favorite was the enchilada one. I learned burritos are American, not Mexican. I have changed as a person and the way I think and am. As a person I have expanded, I am more open and laid back. In Mexico they stay up late and sleep late and are just on a different time schedule than us (I preferred theirs). I tried lots of new things, such as brain tacos and zip-lining. I had a great time and can't wait to go to Mexico again.

Paris Collier (2013 Ambassador, Amador)

This year I had the honor of traveling to Pleasanton’s sister city Tulancingo, and I can honestly say, without a doubt, that it was one of the best experiences of my life. The program brought together six great students of Pleasanton, who may never have become friends otherwise, with six incredible students from Tulancingo, Hidalgo. There was never a dull moment over the two months I spent with these eleven other unbelievable individuals. Everyday we would go sightseeing, shopping, or even just hang out with each other. Some of my favorite memories included our trip to San Francisco where we toured Fisherman’s Wharf and explored the Golden Gate Bridge, our overnight in Santa Cruz where we had a bonfire on the beach and grew even closer with fun team games, and our educational yet extremely fun trip to the pyramids in Teotihuacan. I never thought I could grow so close to anyone in such a short amount of time, but I did. I definitely have made eleven lifetime friends and made memories I will never forget.

Preston Nowakowski (2013 Ambassador, Amador)

The exchange program has been a once in a lifetime experience. I'm so glad that I chose to do it this summer, and not something else. In the program you get to meet so many new people and become such close friends with everyone in the program. 

It's difficult to imagine how many people there are in the world and how each person lives their life differently: different location, different family, different culture, different food. But, after being a part of this program and experiencing a completely different part of the world, I am glad to know that although we are all different, we are so similar in the ways we cherish and appreciate life and each other. It's good to know that I have another family out there.

Sophia Angst (2012 Ambassador)

The sister city program is unique because not only do you get to visit some of the tourist attractions in Mexico, but you also get to experience Mexico on a deeper level, becoming part of a family; eating breakfast with your new siblings, going to family reunions, celebrating birthdays, seeing where they work and go to school, and really getting a feel for a different lifestyle.

Anna Wishnowsky (2012 Ambassador)

    The word “Mexico,” to Californians, is loaded with connotations. These connotations, for me, were broken within hours of my arrival in Tulancingo, Mexico. An unforgettable trip to another family showed me the a much greater side of Mexican culture: the side where the people are loving, gracious, and welcoming. Never before have I encountered people with such a deeply engrained concern for others and familial bonds. Nothing I write can properly describe the people we met, other than to say that every single exchange student formed everlasting friendships, and gained a new family.
    The immersion in the language was exactly the step I needed in my language-learning process. I did the exchange after completing Spanish four, and I think I was at the perfect level for Spanish immersion. This does not mean it is impossible before this level, but I personally found the transition surprisingly easy. The families are accepting of language flaws and more than willing to help with the learning process. I am certain that my Spanish improved; I went from turning bright red every time I spoke Spanish to walking into a room and striking up a conversation with a stranger.
    Perhaps the most compelling reason to do the exchange is the travel; the students explore some incredible sites. My favorite was the pyramids at Teotihuacan. Climbing them was refreshing, interesting, and provided an excellent view at the top. I learned a lot from that day, and it was fun! Veracruz was another favorite of all the girls this year, it was very fun to relax on the warm beaches and explore the night life out on the town.
    Even the Pleasanton part of the program was enjoyable. I spent every waking moment with my sister, and we were busy the entire month planning adventures for ourselves. We went on several trips with the program, too, including the Alameda County Fair, which was in some ways a novel experience for the Mexican students. It’s occasionally humorous, the things that are new or strange to the others (one student enthused over a water fountain).
    Tulancingo provided more than just a summer filled with fun. It gave me another language, which is inarguably a life skill. I became part of another family, with which I feel appreciated, comfortable, and loved. Finally, I was able to experience another culture, which was an interesting deviation from daily life. I recommend this program for anyone who is willing to make a temporary change of summer plans in return for a lifetime of benefits.

Nikki Van Wagner (2012 Ambassador)

Everything about the exchange program, from the places I visited and the people I met to the food I ate, was incredible and unforgettable.  Tulancingo is really different from Pleasanton, but the Mexican students were just like us; I had a lot in common with both my new sister and brother. Every single person I met in Tulancingo was so loving, friendly, and polite; I made so many great friends who I will never forget.

The fieldtrips we went on were really great as well.   It was a very busy first month in California visiting places like Monterey and San Francisco, places I have traveled to many times before but got to experience for the “first” time with the Mexican teens. We also went to the Alameda County Fair and saw an A’s game, which was a lot of fun.  In Mexico, my favorite trip was to the pyramids in Teotihuacan.  Our tour guide, Gorilla, was really engaging and funny and he told us a lot of incredible facts about the pyramids and the sacred place they hold with the Mexican people.  He took us underneath the pyramids and did a prayer ceremony, asking the gods for energy, and the experience was so fascinating.  We also visited Mexico City and Veracruz, which were incredible as well. 

I was a little nervous at first to live with a family that I didn’t know and who didn’t speak the same language, but my host family was so caring and welcoming and they always took the extra time to explain things to me in a way I’d understand.  My Spanish improved significantly with their help and they made sure I was always having a good time; I am very grateful to them and they are like my second family.

Overall, it was a life-changing experience and I am so glad I was given the opportunity to be a part of this program. It was an amazing month learning about the culture and experiencing new and different things.  I’m definitely returning to Mexico and I highly recommend this program to any students taking Spanish.

Linsay LLoyd (2011 Ambassador)

When I first found out I was accepted for the Pleasanton Tulancingo Sister City Youth Exchange program I was so excited. We found out way before we were going to actually meet our siblings back in March, so it was a long wait until Summer.  My biggest fear was that I would not get along with my “soon to be brother” while we were in California. And my biggest concern about being in Tulancingo was the communication. The night my brother, Diego, arrived in California was amazing. He did not say much.  He told me that he knew how to speak English well, but he just didn’t know what to say. As I look back on the month in Pleasanton, we had so much fun while he was here. I love him so much. I am very glad that the Tulancingo youth come here first.

As the days passed and our trip approached I became nervous. The night we left for the airport was hard because I knew I would be away for a month. I sent my last texts to my friends and cried on the way to the airport. Diego told me that I could not cry because if I did, then he would start, too. Once we arrived in Tulancingo I was still nervous and now exhausted. Tulancingo is different than Pleasanton. The laws are different. The speed limits are slower. Simple things I noticed made me think of my life in California and of American food.

I lived with Aranza Islas Gonzalez, her two siblings and Parents. Her Parents were very nice, even though they did not speak much English.  Her two siblings spoke enough to communicate with me. When the Tulancingo youth were in California during June, we spoke alot of English with the Mexican students, but in Mexico we had to depend on our Spanish speaking skills much of the time. I believe a big difference is they have been learning English almost all their lives while we only started learning Spanish 2 or maybe 3 years ago. The families are very understanding and tried to speak English. They all want to learn English, too.

The Youth Exchange Program was the most amazing experience I have ever had. It is not a walk in the park, though. Being somewhere where they do not speak your language, eat the same foods or do not have the same customs is a big change. With that said, though, I came through with flying colors and would have not changed my decision about being in the exchange program. The people you meet and the things you do will change your life forever. When offered once in a lifetime chances, make a once in a lifetime decision and take it! You will not regret it. I promise.

Nayo Clinchard (2010 Ambassador)

Participating in the Tulancingo/ Pleasanton exchange program has by far been the most amazing experience of my life. During this program I made so many new friends and met so many amazing people. I am extremely thankful for the people who were able to make this happen, they changed my life.

When the Mexican students were living in our homes in Pleasanton, our group went on many fun trips. Some of these places that were meant to show to our brothers and sisters, I had not even seen. We made trips to Sacramento, San Francisco, Pier 39, and many others. I personally became extremely close with the girl living with me, Miroslava. The program coordinators hand picked who stayed with who according to their interests and overall family life. It was a perfect match. We enjoyed everyday singing together,writing songs,riding bikes,watching movies, baking, and even choreographing dances! I loved going to hang out with my friends too and having them meet my new sister:) It felt as though I had my best friend living with me for an entire month! My family loved her too and all
of the other students. We became like  a big family. Once the month was over, we were off to Tulancingo.

At the airport when we were leaving for Mexico, It was a very emotional experience. I was very excited to go to Mexico, but also slightly nervous. I had never left the country before this trip, and I knew that my Spanish was not amazing. However I figured it would be a great learning experience for me and a great  time. When we arrived at the Airport in Mexico, our new families were waiting for us with posters and balloons. I took a deep breath and realized that everything was going to be fine. My family there treated me very well and I love them for that. They understood that my Spanish was not the best, and helped me to learn new words and understand what they were saying. While there, our group went on many trips too. We went to Mexico city, Pachuca, and even climbed to the top of the Mexican pyramids! The month there went by very fast and soon enough we were on our way home.

It was very hard for me to adjust back at home again. I had truly made amazing friends there and was distraught to know that I would'nt see them again for a while. However, through Facebook and Skype, I am able to keep in contact with them. By the end of this trip, my level of Spanish increased tremendously. Before the trip I  only understood words and phrases when people would talk in Spanish, and by the end I could literally understand full sentences. My Spanish class now is very easy, and I am going straight to Spanish 5 from 3 next year. This trip has truly inspired me to become fluent in Spanish and even pursue the language in college. Also, because I loved this trip so much, I am saving up every earned penny this year to go on a trip to Spain with a program called ECI.

I would recommend this program to anyone, whether they have a love for the language and culture or not. Either way, by the end of this program, I am sure that they will have a new found love for Mexico, the Spanish language, the culture and of course the people. I am planning on returning to Tulancingo as many times as I can throughout my life. I have friends and family there now and they are an important part of my life. [Nayo made her own visit to Tulancingo in 2011; ed.]

Becca Brown (2010 Ambassador)

The Pleasanton Tulancingo Sister City Program means something different to every person who participates. Not only does this program help to foster international understanding, but it also obtains a different meaning in each of the lives of the people involved. To me, this program means “Family”.

When Ilse, mi hermana, arrived, I was extremely nervous. I had butterflies in my stomach and found myself speaking twice as fast as I normally do. However, as the time went on, I found myself becoming more and more comfortable with Ilse and within a short time, I felt she truly became a member of our family. I became so comfortable with her that I did not want her to leave. I was sobbing when we boarded the plane.

When I arrived in Mexico, mi hermano, Luis, immediately introduced me to his family – “mi familia”. Immediately, I was terrified. My parents spoke and my brother, Pepe, spoke little English, and my Spanish was only passable at best. Luckily, however, I discovered that my older brother, Juan, was fluent in English (and French and Finnish). So, it was with a mixture of my limited Spanish, Juan’s translations, Google translator, and elaborate hand gestures that we all communicated. And yet it worked, and once again I truly began to feel connected to these new members of my family. So connected, in fact, that, when mis hermanos left 3 hours before I had to leave for Mexico City, I started crying a lot because I knew I would miss them alot. They had become my family and were unforgettable to me.

The friends I made in this program and the people I have met have all become a part of my family. They, like everyone in my life, define my world and my perspective, and without this program, I would never have met them. Mi familia has become, through this program, not a biological connection, but rather an emotional connection, and everyone I have met through the PTSCA program is definitely connected to me.

Mimi Townsend (2009 Ambassador):

    My favorite thing about Mexico was the people. They were all very kind, loving, and welcoming. Between the students in the program, school, and parties, I made tons of friends that I will never forget. The teens, there, were just like us; they loved music (all listened to their iPods), many loved to dance, hang out, and play ping pong, and even play soccer.
    We went on several awesome trips in Mexico. My favorite trip was to the pyramids; they were amazing! After an invigorating climb, the view was stunning! Imagining the people who use to live there and how they lived made me catch my breath. I also got the opportunity to go to Acapulco, which was beautiful. The air was humid, but the water was perfect. I spent hours in the warm ocean water; it was nothing like our cold-water beaches here!
    Before we went to Tulancingo, we also spent a month here with our Mexican brothers and sisters. I really liked it here, too, because we went on a tour to Sacramento and learned interesting things that I didn’t even know about California. We also got to site see in San Francisco and go to the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. In addition, we went to an A’s baseball game, the traditional American sport, and the Alameda County Fair. I was amazed at how much I learned just at home.
    All-in-all it was a great opportunity. My Spanish greatly improved, and I learned a lot about the fascinating culture. I would strongly recommend this program; it was an unforgettable, life-changing experience.

Rebecca Moreno (2009 Ambassador):

The month that I spent in Mexico was so much more then I expected. When I signed up for this program, I was thinking, “Wow, this will be a great way to improve my Spanish” and, “I’m sure this will look great on my college applications”. And though those two things are true, it wasn’t what made it such an amazing experience. I made friends that I know I will be in contact with for many years to come, and I had so many incredible experiences that I will never forget. My favorite of these events was being able to see the ruins of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. It was unbelievable (and exhausting) standing on top of the Aztec Sun Pyramid and looking down on how high up we had climbed. Also, standing in front of the famous Aztec Sun Stone (or Calendar) was unreal. I enjoyed going to Real del Monte, as well, to shop for silver in their street market, and being able to zip line down said street was quite exhilarating. Of course, I cannot forget our trip to Acapulco. The water there was by far the warmest and most beautiful I have ever seen in my life, and it was fun viewing all the things the vendors were selling up and down the beaches.
However, as much as I love traveling to all the different places, just staying and hanging out in Tulancingo was also very entertaining, and something I will miss a great deal. I was somewhat nervous the first day there, but the people and my family were all so kind and hospitable that I soon felt very welcomed and comfortable. This was definitely a trip of a lifetime, and I hope I can go back and visit as soon as possible.

Lane Barlow (2009 Ambassador)

The month that I spent in Mexico was so much more then I expected. When I signed up for this program, I was thinking, “Wow, this will be a great way to improve my Spanish” and, “I’m sure this will look great on my college applications”. And though those two things are true, it wasn’t what made it such an amazing experience. I made friends that I know I will be in contact with for many years to come, and I had so many incredible experiences that I will never forget. My favorite of these events was being able to see the ruins of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. It was unbelievable (and exhausting) standing on top of the Aztec Sun Pyramid and looking down on how high up we had climbed. Also, standing in front of the famous Aztec Sun Stone (or Calendar) was unreal. I enjoyed going to Real del Monte, as well, to shop for silver in their street market, and being able to zip line down said street was quite exhilarating. Of course, I cannot forget our trip to Acapulco. The water there was by far the warmest and most beautiful I have ever seen in my life, and it was fun viewing all the things the vendors were selling up and down the beaches.
However, as much as I love traveling to all the different places, just staying and hanging out in Tulancingo was also very entertaining, and something I will miss a great deal. I was somewhat nervous the first day there, but the people and my family were all so kind and hospitable that I soon felt very welcomed and comfortable. This was definitely a trip of a lifetime, and I hope I can go back and visit as soon as possible.

Without a doubt, joining the Tulancingo exchange program is one of the best decisions I have ever made. Tulancingo, along with my new friends and family Tulancinguenses, are now my home away from home and as close to my heart as anything. 

Our first visit to SFO (San Francisco International Airport, to pick up our new siblings was truly exciting. During the first month while hosting my sister Carolina, there was never a dull moment.  We were always on the move to do or see something before our time was up, and it seems like every other night, after we had a group trip, we would get together at someone's house to watch a movie or just to hang out. During this short time, we spent much time together.  As a result, all of us became very close, not only with our sibling but also with each other.

Upon our second visit at SFO, leaving for MEX (Mexico City International Airport), we were exponentially more excited, and understandably so. However, all of the incredible trip that we anticipated could not have been nearly sufficient to prepare us for truly being there, experiencing the sights, the people, and the culture. Not a day went by during which something interesting did not happen, something new like La Feria de Los Angelitos, the city fair taking place downtown or the world's best beach water, in Acapulco and El Museo de Antropologia (The Museum of Anthropology), in Mexico city, to name a few.

Certainly, one of my goals for the trip was to improve my Spanish. Without a doubt, the time I spent in Mexico helped greatly in learning new words and vernacular in addition to practicing what I already knew as it did for the rest of us. However, there is nothing to fear in regard to communication barriers. You are nearly always with your siblings or other students, and almost anywhere you go, in Tulancingo and especially in places with many tourists, you will find people who speak sufficient English to communicate effectively, and you will never find yourself in a situation where communication is impossible.

By the time we left for Mexico, any nervousness about leaving behind family and friends had evaporated, as we all got to know our new siblings for a month prior to leaving. We were all extremely excited to be finally meeting our new families. While the idea of being away from your friends and family for over a month in an unfamiliar place may seem intimidating at first, my family, as well as all of our Mexican families, endeared themselves to our hearts both quickly and permanently. I could never have imagined growing so close to any group in such a short period of time; it is truly incredible, and I can say assuredly that I plan to visit them at the soonest opportunity. And it is not only your family that ties you forever to Tulancingo, but the city itself, between its bustling streets with vendors and amateur trumpet players in every plaza and street corner, its cathedral juxtaposed to the neighboring falluca, or its people, the kindest and most friendly and generous souls you will ever find.
When our third visit to SFO came around, it seemed it could never get worse than having to wave goodbye to my new family, board the plane, and return home. However, looking back at it now, I can only be happy for having had this experience, and while I miss every late night playing games, every Spanish dubbed American movie, every ordinary conversation spoken in Spanish, every (real) taco, and every night spent in anticipation of another day of the same caliber, I feel that there is no greater comfort than knowing that I will always have my friends and family in Tulancingo who would be as happy to see me upon my return as I would be to see them. I believe there are few experiences that can be treasured as much as this one.

Ben Donlon (2009 Ambassador)

Participating as a student ambassador in the Pleasanton Tulancingo Sister City Association was one of the best decisions that I have ever made. There are few things as eye opening or memorable as spending a month in a foreign country, especially one as beautiful and welcoming as Mexico. From the language, to the food, to the customs, and to your host family, you are fully integrated into Mexican culture and made to feel a very welcome guest in Mexico. Aside from gaining a greater appreciation of Mexican culture and vastly improving your Spanish, you form amazing bonds with your American companions, the Mexican students, and your host family. In my opinion, this is the greatest aspect of the trip because even after the summer ends, you will always have friends and a home south of the border.

Half of the fun is hosting an exchange brother or sister and sharing your culture with them as well as taking them on sight seeing tours of various local sights including San Francisco and the Capitol. Even walking around downtown Pleasanton with my exchange brother made me see my home in a new light and appreciate our town as if I was seeing it for the first time. All of the trips were very well organized, well thought out, and fun. It is also very exciting to “show off” your exchange brother or sister and introduce them to your friends. For me, one of the best parts of the Mexican students’ stay in the United States was taking them to Nickel City Arcade in San Jose to see a small concert featuring Oakland singer/songwriter Dave Smallen as well as a punk band from Greenland called The Maxies.

Of course, going to Mexico is the more exciting or more intimidating half of the trip, depending on how you look at it. However, even if you are not completely comfortable with your Spanish skills, the host families are some of the nicest, most understanding people I have ever met. And your host brother or sister can always help you. The sights to be seen in Tulancingo, Mexico City, and the surrounding areas are worth the trip alone. We visited the ancient Aztec city of Teotihuacan and climbed to the top of the famous Sun Pyramid, had a personalized tour of Mexico City and went to Acapulco, among other trips. Sights like this are only available in Mexico and sharing the experience with people that quickly become your best friends makes it all the more enjoyable. Just sitting in a café in Tulancingo with the other students, is somehow so much more amazing than sitting in a Starbucks in the U.S. One month does not seem enough time to appreciate what Tulancingo and Mexico have to offer.

When I first arrived in Tulancingo and was getting settled in my new home for the following month, I will admit that I was a bit nervous. Then, something strange happened. I was unpacking my bags in my room when I heard Mariachi music drifting in through my open window. This was probably the best welcome I could have received to Mexico and it is the kind of memory that will stay with me forever. If you participate in this program, I can guarantee that you will have an experience full of these amazing, beautiful memories. This is not just something to write in your college applications; this is an incredible, moving experience that will last far beyond the summer you spend as an exchange student.