Wed, Aug. 21

Hands Across the Border
Student exchange program builds appreciation, breaks stereotypes

Rhonda Gonzalez

Rhonda Gonzalez

Seventh and eighth graders have arrived from Coborca, Mexico, to stay a few days with Cottonwood Middle School students and their families. In April, the CMS host students will travel to Mexico.

It is an exchange program called Hands Across the Border and it has been active in Arizona for more than 25 years.

"This is our 14th year at Cottonwood Middle School," said Rhonda Gonzalez, exchange program coordinator for CMS. Her husband, Roman, is co-coordinator.

The program is open to seventh- and eighth-grade students. Gonzalez said students fill out a short application and turn it in along with a teacher recommendation form. Then, a special committee selects students to take part in the exchange.

This year, 26 Mexican students and 12 adults have arrived from Coborca, the town that has exchanged students with CMS for the full 14 years. The same number of CMS students will travel to Coborca in April.

Before the student exchange occurs, many of the parents have already taken part in their own exchange program. In the fall, parents from Mexico come to Cottonwood in October. Then CMS parents travel to Mexico in November.

Coborca and CMS students who are paired up for this first visit of the exchange will remain partners when CMS goes to Mexico. Parents who accompany the students do not stay in the homes where their children stay.

Gonzalez started going on the exchange trips when she was a teacher at Oak Creek School in Cornville, where both of her sons were students. "They are amazing hosts," she said. "They treat us like kings and queens."

It used to be that CMS students going to Mexico were mostly Anglo. "Our role has changed," Gonzalez said. Now, many of the kids from CMS are Hispanic. Gonzalez said those students typically were born in the United States and have never been to Mexico. Some do not speak Spanish.

The Mexican students will attend some classes while here. They also will accompany their Cottonwood partners on activities, including a visit to Flagstaff to play in the snow. When the Coborca students arrived Thursday evening, CMS students, parents and staff held a potluck dinner in the school cafeteria.

"When we go down there they take us to the beach," Gonzalez said. They also take the CMS students to points of interest and to dances and local restaurants. Students and parents who have made the trip in the past have raved about how well the host families feed them.

"They were always trying to feed me," said Sarah Adler, who made the trip as a seventh grader and is now a junior at Mingus Union High School.

But the exchange experience involves more than great food. It tends to break down stereotypes while teaching appreciation for a different culture.

A few quotes from former CMS exchange students say it best. One student said "It's not as different as people think it is, life in general, they treated each other with respect."

Another student said the trip changed his life. "It let me see what it is like in real Mexico, and not just in Rocky Point."

Before one CMS boy made the trip, he expected Coborca to "be like Cottonwood, only with a different language." In his report following the trip, he said he realized that "the people there work harder and are more outgoing than we are."

One girl from CMS said the trip made her think about how many things she takes for granted. "We should be thankful for all of the things that we have now," she said.

One student may have touched on exactly what Hands Across the Border is all about.

"To be honest, I noticed more respect from them than I see from a lot of American kids. No matter where you are from or what color your skin, you have to treat people with respect. I just wish I could see the respect I saw over there for people here in America."

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