Students 'study abroad' with immigrant families in their own communities

Armand Melk-Johnson hugs Mariel
Armand Melk-Johnson, 15, hugs his host sister, Mariel, goodbye.
Max Nesterak | MPR News

It didn't take long for Minnehaha Academy ninth-grader Armand Melk-Johnson, 15, to feel at home with his host family in Minneapolis.

"In the Latino community, once you go and meet somebody, you're automatically their friend," Melk-Johnson said.

Melk-Johnson spent a week living with Alicia, a Peruvian Minneapolis-resident, along with her two young children. They hosted him through a program called City Stay, which places students with Latino, Somali, and Hmong host families around the Twin Cities.

Alicia is undocumented and did not want her last name used. She came to Minnesota from Peru 11 years ago, and both her children, 8 year-old Mariel and 5-year-old Thomas, were born in the United States. She says she likes hosting students so her children can make friends with older kids.

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Alicia only speaks a little English, and Melk-Johnson is still learning Spanish, but she said they can communicate well — even just in the way they look at each other. Mariel and Thomas started seeing him as an older brother almost at once.

"I love having him here," Mariel said. "He has a lot of fun with my brother, and he's a very good older brother to me."

City Stay was founded several years ago by Julie Knopp, a kindergarten teacher at a bilingual school. Knopp got the idea for the program when she was living on in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border and was surprised by how wide cultural divides could be within communities.

"I was really excited about the potential of doing these cultural exchange at home, because not only could we learn from one another culturally, and still learn new languages, but we could do it in a way that broke down barriers in our community and helped us better understand the people we see in our everyday lives," Knopp said.

It's still an unpaid, passion project for her and a handful of board members. So far, they've had about 60 students go through the program and have about 20 host families.

Knopp says she was also motivated to start the program to make cultural abroad experiences accessible to more students. City Stay is much less expensive than a traditional study abroad program. It also attracts a higher percentage of students of color, including students who are themselves "new Minnesotans."

Knopp wants people to stay in touch.

"I love the idea of being able to have lasting relationships with our neighbors and continuing to learn from one another," Knopp said.

Before he left, Alicia made Melk-Johnson promise to call and come back and see them. He said he would.