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Personal connections transcend boundaries

Four teachers who have participated in the Sister Cities exchange program. From left: Larry Sonnek, Dona Macaulay-Bradt, Daisy Hofer and Victor Yu. Photo by James Clinton1 / 2
Two former officemates catch up. Larry Sonnek (left) and Victor Yu. Photo by James Clinton2 / 2

To best appreciate where you are, first, you need to leave. That's the consensus from the artist and teacher who participated in an exchange program with Quzhou, China — one of Red Wing's sister cities. The exchange participants recently attended a welcome potluck for Victor Yu, a visiting teacher from Quzhou who will be in Red Wing through May 7.

For the Red Wing teachers and artists in attendance, it was an opportunity to reflect on their own experiences abroad.

Dan Weimer, who participated in an artist exchange with Quzhou in 2008, called his trip "the experience of a lifetime." He reflected, "The personal connections you make are what's most important."

After watching Victor Yu reconnect with his former officemate Larry Sonnek, it's hard to disagree.

An English teacher, Sonnek participated in an educator exchange about five years ago, traveling to Quzhou and sharing an office with Yu. Sonnek said he "could not have had a better time."

As soon as Sonnek arrived at Yu's open house, the pair was all smiles, swapping stories, asking questions and even planning a trip to Chicago.

Yu looks forward to experiencing as much as he can while in the United States.

The Sister Cities Commission, along with Quzhou and Ikata, Japan — Red Wing's other sister city — organizes these exchanges. A few months ago, the commission only had three members. Since then, both Mayor Sean Dowse and City Council President Kim Beise prioritized the commission. At City Council's most recent meeting, the commission received its ninth member.

"The commission provides an important opportunity for our community, for our students, and for our teachers," said Beise. "It's going to be fun to see what the commission accomplishes over the next few years."

Dona Macaulay-Bradt, previously chaired the commission for six years, and like Beise, has a good feeling about the future of the sister cities partnership. She taught in China during the 1998-99 school year. While she had a wonderful overall experience, it's the personal connections she made that had the strongest impact.

"It's so important to get to know people one-on-one. I still keep in touch with people I met during my exchange," reflected Macaulay-Bradt. "No matter what happens between our nations, we will always be friends."

For Daisy Hofer, an educator who taught in China in 1995, the experience resulted in something much more than friendship. Hofer adopted a daughter, Julia, from the country in 1997. Julia is now a junior at Tufts University, majoring in biochemistry with plans to attend medical school.

"Teaching abroad changed my life. I would never have thought of adopting if it weren't for the exchange program," said Hofer.

Victor Yu arrived Feb. 3 and will spend about two weeks at each public school in Red Wing before departing May 7. Yu will visit Minnesota State College-Southeast in April as well.

Red Wing's Sister Cities Commission provides an invaluable service to our community, connecting us to others from around the world, broadening our horizons while challenging our prejudices.

Dona Macaulay-Bradt summed it up well.

"If every town did what we did, and created meaningful relationships across national boundaries, the world would be a better place."