Tacoma welcomes Sister City friends from France

Students from Biot, France, enjoy a meet-and-greet with Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards in council chambers on Tuesday. Photo by Andrew Fickes

A group of 19 eighth grade students from College I’Eganaude in the town of Biot, France arrived in Tacoma on April 8 as part of a first-ever student exchange between Tacoma and Biot, which are Sister Cities.

“My dream was to get a student exchange and it finally came to fruition six years after Tacoma became a Sister City with Biot,” said Catherine Sarnat, a volunteer liaison between Tacoma and Biot.

In October 2012, Biot became Tacoma’s 12th Sister City after a group of Tacoma residents rallied together and expressed interest for the City to formulate ties with Biot. Most Sister Cities are tied to Tacoma either by common geography, size, or economy. In the case of Biot, the two cities’ commonalities are glass art. Biot is the glass art capital of France; Tacoma is the glass art capital of the United States.

Huguette Marsicano, a Tacoma resident and also a native of southern France where Biot is located near the French Riviera, recognized the significance that a bond between Tacoma and Biot would have and set out to form a Tacoma-Biot Sister City committee.

But what started out as a connection with glass blowing soon morphed into a student pen pal program between teachers and culminated in the student exchange.

In 2014, Molly Higgins, a seventh- and eighth-grade French teacher at Mason Middle School in Tacoma, decided she wanted an opportunity for her students to exchange letters with students in France. In her search, she discovered Tacoma’s Sister City tie with Biot and on a whim, e-mailed Antona Healey, an English teacher at College I’Eganaude, and her colleagues, to gauge their interest in starting a pen pal program for students.

“It was serendipitous,” Higgins said.

For the past four years, Higgins’ students and Healey’s English-speaking French students have been exchanging letters at least once a quarter. In February 2016, Higgins traveled to Biot and stayed for a week, hosted by the principal of Healey’s school. Last spring, Healey came to Tacoma to stay for a week, hosted by Sarnat.

The hope that students in Healey’s class would finally be able to visit their peers in Tacoma became reality last May when Healey’s class received grants and funding from French National Education; the American Embassy in France; Biot Town Hall; and supportive businesses in and around Biot. In addition, Healey’s students created a video for a crowdfunding site and raised 2,500 euros. Thanks to the generous funding, Healey said families only had to pay 500 euros per student, instead of 1,500 euros.

“This student exchange has been a culmination of a lot of hopes,” Higgins said. “This is really a dream come true to create this opportunity for students. It’s really fun to see it come to fruition.”

On Monday, April 9, students were welcomed to Tacoma with an ice cream social, hosted by Sarnat at her home at the Vaeth Mansion in Stadium District.

On Tuesday afternoon, students were given a chance to visit with Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, who was generous to answer questions about everything from the functions of local city government to what her priorities are while serving as mayor.

When asked by students if the mayor had ever visited Biot, Woodards remarked that she would love to visit all 14 of Tacoma’s Sister Cities during her time as mayor, including Biot.

Woodards said it was important for her to be there for these students, to welcome them to the city, and be an ambassador for Tacoma.

“I want everyone to love Tacoma, and so it’s exciting to share with kids why Tacoma is a great city,” Woodards said.

Chiara Canavero, a student in Healey’s class, said she was impressed by Woodards’ authenticity.

“I think she was really true,” Canavero said. “She didn’t lie when she was talking. She wants to do the best for her city.”

Canavero, like many of her peers in her class, said she was excited to experience what life is like as an American teen, and also what city life is like. In comparison, Biot is a very small town with a population under 6,000.

“I like the people of Tacoma,” she said. “They are generous and smiling and very welcoming.”

The students will spend two weeks in Tacoma. During their time here, they plan to take three one-day trips to Seattle, where they will visit the Space Needle, the Pacific Science Museum, the Museum of Pop Culture, and Pike Place Market.

On Wednesday, students visited Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, where they mingled with glass blowing artists. Students also visited the Tacoma Art Museum, Washington State History Museum, the Hilltop Artists program at Jason Lee Middle School, Stadium High School, and spent a good amount of time with their pen pal students in Higgins’ class at Mason Middle School.

“The teachers are bubbling over with excitement to have this happen,” Sarnat said.

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