This Study Abroad-Style Program Places Students in the Homes of Immigrants in Their Own Community

Lead Photo: Getty
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Armand Melk-Johnson – a 15-year-old ninth-grader at Minnehaha Academy – didn’t have to travel far for an authentic Peruvian experience. Right in Minneapolis, he learned about Peruvian culture by living with a family of three for a week. He participated in City Stay, a five-year-old program that places high school students with Latino, Somali, and Hmong families around Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s sort of like studying abroad – but right in students’ own backyards.

Julie Knopp, who teaches kindergarten, began the program after her own experiences studying abroad. “We have a lot of preconceived notions about our neighbors, and one of our goals is to break down these stereotypes,” Knopp told me over email. “In the same vein, one of my personal objectives has been to make ‘study abroad’ more relevant. When I studied for a semester in Thailand, I came home and had no idea if there was a Thai community in my city or how to go about finding it. I eventually forgot the Thai language I learned and much of the cultural knowledge. The friendships I had developed didn’t last. I loved the idea of ‘studying abroad’ down the street, so that we can develop lasting relationships, continue learning from each other, and act as advocates for one another.”

And at a time when the Trump Administration has misrepresented immigrant communities, a program like this is that much more valuable. With about 60 percent of the participating students being white, it gives these teens the chance to meet people outside of their own race. But unlike a traditional study abroad program – which is typically about 80 percent white – City Stay is more accessible to people of all demographics. So of about the 60 students who have gone through the program, some have come from immigrant families themselves.

But regardless of cultural background, the hope is that the students bond with people outside of their own immediate community. For Armand, a week was enough for him to feel part of the family with Alicia – an undocumented immigrant who’s lived in the United States for more than a decade – and her children, Mariel and Thomas. In that time, he built a Hot Wheels course with Thomas. “I love having him here,” Mariel told MPR News. “He has a lot of fun with my brother, and he’s a very good older brother to me.”

Armand Melk-Johnson, 15, hugs his host sister, Mariel, goodbye. Photo: Max Nesterak/MPR News
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Though he’s not fluent in Spanish and Alicia doesn’t know too much English, the two communicated effectively. By the end of the week, the two seemed genuinely sad about parting ways. He promised to call her and keep in touch with Mariel and Thomas.

City Stay – which is a volunteer project for Knopp and a few other board members – works with three high schools and about 20 different families. Six Latino families have participated in the program. Alicia, for example, likes to take part in City Stay to give her young children role models, she says. But undoubtedly, it’s the students who stand to have their whole worldview widened.

“In this political and social climate, we see significant barriers between local cultural and racial communities,” Knopp said. “City Stay’s goal is to spark some real communication and relationships across these dividing lines. My goal is to build lasting relationships between neighbors of different cultures in order to break down stereotypes and promote equity. At the end of the day, our cross-cultural immersion experiences are really the simple act of getting to know your neighbors. And in this era of mistrust and tension, I believe that getting to know your neighbors is a radical act.”

Listen to Armand and Alicia’s story here.