Students from Fort Worth, Italy and Africa strolled through the streets of the Stockyards on a recent humid, sunny Sunday.

They wandered into gift stores and browsed through Texas-shaped keychains. 

They compared the different measuring systems they use in their home countries — imperial or metric — and argued over the practicality behind each. But they also embraced their similarities. 

The students bonded over “Spongebob Squarepants” and talked about their favorite episodes from “The Simpsons.”

The discussions are all part of Fort Worth Sister Cities International’s plan to foster the next generation of world leaders. The students recently participated in a two-week, annual International Leadership Academy. The program brought in high school students from North Texas and Fort Worth’s sister cities in Mbabane, Eswatini, and Reggio Emilia, Italy, to Cowtown for a series of cultural exchange classes and activities to build a more harmonious world through friendships. 

“I was expecting it to be less exciting than it actually was. Because it’s a place where you’re supposed to be learning, and learning systems these days tend to be quite boring,” said Sivikelwe Mathunjwa, 14, who is from Mbabane, Eswatini. “But everyone was nice, so it really did exceed my expectations.”

The theme for this year’s program is the art of peace. It was the first time students gathered in person after the program went virtual for the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the course of two weeks, the students learned about different cultural dances, wrote poems and tried new cuisines. Apart from the obvious differences in traditions, they also were exposed to the subtle things that exist in different parts of the world.

For Sivikelwe, a simple question such as “Where are you from?” is not a big deal in her country, nor does it seem offensive. But she’s discovered through her peers from the program that people in the U.S. may be offended by that question.

The question may sometimes reduce an individual’s identity to a representation of a larger social group or a specific culture, according to Harvard Business Review.

The phenomenon taught Sivikelwe to be more culturally sensitive. The program also forces the students to build camaraderie with one another. Every night, students have to turn in their phones at 10 p.m. and can only get their phone back the following day at 7 a.m.

Not only was Sivikelwe OK with the rule, she liked it. 

“It just (forces) me to communicate more and (showed me) that the world is bigger than your cell phone,” Sivikelwe said. “You realize you really can survive without your phone. You can socialize and network, and it gives you more perspective that there’s now more time to do other things.”

Nancy Marchant is the program chairperson. One of the main goals of this program is for the students to develop life-long relationships, which is common. One of the current staff attended the program in the 1990s and is still in touch with her host family to this day, Marchant said.

Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower started Sister Cities International in 1956. The goal of the nonprofit is to promote cultural understanding and economic development. It does this by organizing youth and adult exchange programs and business partnerships.

“(Eisenhower) felt that the United Nations was not enough to really bring peace to the world, that it had to be personal relationships, and that people from one country had to know people from another country to really feel what was happening in their lives and to care about what was happening in other places,” Marchant said.

And that’s at the heart of the International Leadership Academy, Marchant said. 

Fort Worth has nine sister cities located in Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia. Most recently, Fort Worth won the Sister Cities International’s Innovation in Youth and Education award for its outstanding youth programs in 2021. 

Fort Worth’s Sister Cities

Because of the pandemic and immigration issues, this year’s program welcomed students from only two sister cities — Mbabane, Eswatini, and Reggio Emilia, Italy.

Unlike the typical study abroad experience, where students learn and adapt to their host country’s culture and customs, the International Leadership Academy invites students from multiple countries with different cultures.

“(Students) have to relate to all these different cultures (all) at one time, which is much more challenging, but much more rewarding because they learned so much about themselves and are able to look at the world with new eyes,” Marchant said. 

Before coming to the U.S., Nhlakanipho Mthimkhulu, from Eswatini, thought the U.S. was full of bright lights and skyscrapers. He was surprised at the vast lands of Texas. And Fort Worth was something different for him. The city offered Nhlakanipho, 18, cowboy culture and Texas cuisine.

“I’ve tried different types of food, Tex-Mex and barbecue. I can’t name all of them, but I’ve tried most of the food, and it is really great,” Nhlakanipho said.

And his favorite? The barbecue, of course.

“I love meat,” he said. “The spices, the way they cook the meat, it’s so nice and it’s different. It’s a different way than they cook it at home.”

The program helped 14-year-old Davide Garuti, who is from Italy, improve his English and introduced him to a new group of friends from Eswatini and Fort Worth. 

Preston Jezek, 15, is a rising sophomore at Carroll High School in Southlake. He had options to choose from for his summer activities, including basketball games. But he ultimately chose to attend the program to meet fellow youth from different parts of the world. 

Preston’s favorite part of the program was the rope course. Everyone encouraged each other along the way, he said.

“It is an amazing program. You get to learn so much about other people’s cultures,” Preston said. “The program really encourages a bunch of people to be aware of who everyone else is.”

The relationships students develop go beyond their time in Fort Worth, Marchant said. The relationships they maintain over the years will allow them to see the world through different lenses. 

As the program came to a close, Preston said he’ll miss the people he met in the program the most. But they have already created a group chat on WhatsApp, a free messaging and calling app, to stay in touch even if they’re separated by oceans.

Students from Fort Worth, Eswatini and Italy chat after the closing ceremony of the two-week International Leadership Academy on Saturday, July 30, 2022. (Chongyang Zhang | Fort Worth Report)

Chongyang Zhang is a summer fellow reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at chongyang.zhang@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter

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Chongyang Zhang

Chongyang Zhang graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2021. Previously, he worked for his school newspaper, The Shorthorn, for a year and a half.