Here’s a study-abroad alternative: Get to know your neighbors

What if you could immerse yourself in another country’s food, culture, and language — without having to leave the Twin Cities?

A new program, founded by a 25-year-old St. Paul native, aims to link high-school age youth with Latino and Somali-American host families this summer.

For City Stay director Julie Knopp, the idea came to her after comparing two study-“abroad” experiences as an undergraduate.

One trip took her to Thailand. The other took her to El Paso, Texas, along the Mexican border.

“I felt like a foreigner in Thailand, and I felt like a foreigner in Texas,” said Knopp, who is white. “And the fact that I felt like a foreigner in Texas was the piece that made [the trip] more challenging and transformative — and also concerning that we know so little about the different ways of life within our own communities.”

City Stay Introduction Video from City Stay on Vimeo.

In fact, one goal of the program is to reduce community mistrust and social inequality in the Twin Cities by creating a space for residents to make unlikely connections with their own neighbors.

Over three and a half weeks, students would take language and cultural classes and work on an internship project. They’d have the nights and weekends to immerse themselves in the daily rhythms of the host family, whether it be cooking, cleaning, or attending family gatherings and community events.

But Knopp, a Cretin-Derham Hall graduate, is also prepared for criticism that the program is yet another form of what she calls “slum tourism” — sending privileged visitors into impoverished areas for the sake of an ethnographic field study, or entertainment.

Knopp says that’s not what City Stay is about. “We want it to be something other than suburban kids coming to the inner-city,” she said.

She notes that college kids often come home from study-abroad experiences with deep knowledge about a new place and community, but have a hard time maintaining relationships from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

“City Stay allows them to continue building their language and intercultural skills after the program ends,” she said.

And, she says, it’s tough to argue that the program is taking advantage of communities of color when the prospective host families are excited to share their culture with the students.

City Stay is on the lookout for 10 students from various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds for the inaugural class this June.

Yet the price of entry will cost them. The program charges $1,500. Knopp hopes to offer at least two full scholarships with the help of private donations.

Knopp and her partners also are actively seeking host families who are Latino or Somali immigrants. The families would each receive a stipend of $595.