Halloween, Independence Day and New Years all happened on the same night for more than a dozen teens in Phoenix and they got to share the experience with other teens from around the world.

Phoenix Sister Cities sends teenagers to Phoenix’s sister cities around the world for two weeks each summer to live with a teenager in that country. This week, those teens got to bring their hosts back to Phoenix to give them a similar experience.

The program is meant to bring cultural awareness to teens. While teens are visiting from other countries, Phoenix Sister Cities attempts to show visitors what a year is like in the lives of an American student.

“The goal is to have an all-American experience,” said Misty Cisneros-Contreras, youth and education manager for the program. “We condense what an average year for an American teenager looks like into two weeks. On top of that, they’ll go shopping or have frozen yogurt, watch movies or just hang out like typical teenager stuff.”

The teens have two weeks of organized activities and then one week to show their guests what they do on any normal day.

Mercedez Gutierrez, 15, a Mountain Pointe High School student, visited Taipei, Taiwan, for two weeks at the end of June.

“We did a bunch of sightseeing,” Gutierrez said. “I felt like I was one of the locals. We got to ride scooters there. It was awesome.”

Gutierrez stayed with 16-year-old Meloty Hung while in Taipei. Hung said she was excited to show Gutierrez the night markets, the views and go on a four-wheeler ride. Now it’s Gutierrez’s chance to show Hung the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, Lake Havasu and more.

“I learned a teenager is a teenager wherever you go in the world,” Gutierrez said. “They’re always on their phones too and always hanging out with friends. School is a big part of their lives too. … I’m excited to show her what it’s like to be a teenager in America and hang out with my friends. It’s like a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be able to spend two weeks in another country when you’re only a teenager. It’s really cool.”

The Phoenix Sister Cities exchange program is open to any sophomore or junior in the city of Phoenix. It’s a long process to be accepted into the program. Teens must submit an application and go through a series of interviews before they are accepted. They’re sworn in by the mayor as official ambassadors for the city and then go through some training and preparation before they get to visit the other city. They also don’t choose where they are going.

“This is more than just traveling and being a tourist,” Cisneros-Contreras said. “It’s seeing another country through the eyes of a native. I see such a maturing factor in all of them. It’s the first time on a plane for some of them and they’re doing things mom and dad have always done for them. It’s a growing experience. They also get to meet city officials. A tourist might just go see the sights, but there they have a meeting with the mayor or a city official and they eat at all the quaint restaurants the natives know about, not that the Internet tells you about.”

Phoenix Sister Cities is a nonprofit organization. It pays for half of the exchange through private donations and then the students must raise the other half through their own fundraising efforts.

For more information on the organization, visit www.phoenixsistercities.org.

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