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From Hagerstown to Australia

September 18, 2007|By SHOVAL RESNICK

"I have long believed, as have many before me, that peaceful relations between nations require mutual respect between individuals." - President Dwight D. Eisenhower




In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower hosted a team of American leaders in creating the People to People Student Ambassador Programs. The program sends America's youths to other countries in the hopes that meeting and getting to know people in other lands might bring peace to the volatile world in which they reside.

People to People encouraged its ambassadors to open their eyes to the world surrounding them, to look past differences and notice similarities. When ambassadors see that people are simply people regardless of which continent they live on, which language they speak, or what religion they follow, it's easier to create bonds that endure cruelty, hate and controversy.

Two Hagerstown teens who went through the People to People program this summer sat down and discussed their adventure. Twins Laura and Beth Wagner, 14, freshmen at North Hagerstown High School, traveled from Sydney to Cairns on Australia's east coast for three weeks in early July.

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With 41 others, they attended meetings before the trip to become familiar with Australia.

"We learned about the culture and government," said Beth. They met with city officials who spoke of their Australian government system.

"It was cool," added Laura. "We learned about the flora and fauna, then identified it when we got there."

One of Australia's values is preserving nature.

"Australia had a lot more emphasis on the environment," Beth said.

"Byron Bay was the cleanest place I ever saw," Laura added. "No fast food places and trash cans everywhere."

As part of the trip, the ambassadors stay with a local family for two or three days, known in the program as a home stay. Beth said her family didn't have a clothes dryer. Laura said her host family had a dryer but didn't use it in order to conserve energy. "They dried the clothes on the line except when it rained," she said.

Despite all they were taught, the girls said they still had stereotypes about Australians that couldn't be overcome until they met people.

Their notions of Australians?

"Steve Irwin," both said. "(Australia is) kind of out there," Beth said, "because it seems really different."

"(Australians) seemed just like Americans, though," Laura said.

Not only did the American girls learn about another culture and government, they learned about themselves.

"I learned that I'm good at getting along with a variety of people," Laura said.

"I learned not to take anything for granted," said Beth.

Neither girl had been outside the country before, though several family have traveled. Their brothers went abroad to England, Germany, and Spain.

So, was this trip just tourism or something more? Does the People to People Ambassador program actually break down barriers between nations?

"Our mission is peace through understanding," Beth said. The girls said they "made a lot of connections with the people" and "made a good impression." They said, in particular, they hope they put to rest some stereotypes about Americans.

"It was just a really great experience," Laura said. "It is the best experience in my life so far."

"A once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing," Beth concluded.

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