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“Right now, we can’t get flights into China, so it’s not an option,”

A small cadre of Mesa high schoolers will venture to a trio of international locations this summer – but violence and virus will keep them away from two of Mesa’s Sister Cities. 

The half-dozen students were selected for the yearly trip sponsored by Mesa’s Sister Cities program. 

The city’s sister cities include Kaiping, China; Burnaby, Canada; Caraz, Peru; Guaymas, Mexico and Upper Hutt, New Zealand.

But China and Mexico are off-limits this year.

The decision to forgo visiting the two countries stems from the ongoing violence unfolding across much of Mexico, as well as diplomatic uncertainty created by the coronavirus is making travel visas a virtual impossibility in China, according to Dennis Kavanaugh. 

Kavanaugh, a former Mesa city councilmember, is the vice president of Mesa Sister Cities, overseeing a local chapter dating back to the late-1980s. 

The exchange portion of the Sister Cities program involves a pair of visits, with Mesa students heading abroad in late May for three weeks.  Their international brethren come stateside in late June, staying in Arizona through mid-July, according to Kavanaugh. 

The program is a point of pride for Kavanaugh in how it expands horizons for exchange students, who get to experience a whole new culture and way of life. 

“I think it’s helped grow their worldview,” Kavanaugh said. “And to me, it makes sure citizens are more well-informed. We’ve seen friendships that have been formed over the years, it’s pretty amazing.” 

This year’s class of exchange students is yet to be decided, though Kavanaugh is confident the collective will do well in representing the Valley as a whole. 

So far, Mesa has gotten confirmation from Burnaby, as well as Upper Hutt and Caraz they will be sending students to the East Valley later this year. 

The goal each year for the program is to send no fewer than two students to each of the respective sister cities, as it allows travelers to have company on their respective journeys. 

Kavanaugh expects the full list of both outgoing and incoming exchange students to be finalized come springtime, along with the sponsor families needed to house the visitors. 

The longtime Mesa resident pins his continued support of the Sister Cities program on its themes – including statesmanship, education and the sharing of ideas amongst countries. 

He remembers touring Barnaby in the early 21st century to get an idea of how the town, which is a suburb of Vancouver, used public transportation to build a sense of community. 

Kavanaugh believes future generations of Mesa residents are better served by seeing how these international outposts function, building a more educated, engaged populace. 

“We’re creating relationships at the local level,” Kavanaugh said. “It’s been a very positive experience for us over the years. And it’s one of the reasons we keep doing what we’re doing.” 

Above all, Kavanaugh enjoys seeing how each year’s crop of exchange students interacts with visitors, showing how small the world really can be. 

“Seeing the kids go back and forth, it’s really eye-opening,” Kavanaugh said. “The kids who have gone on the exchange programs in recent years, they have started their own alumni program they’re continuing. 

“They work with us and they work with the schools to share their experiences and they really get an up-close and personal view of the world.” 

The coronavirus also has thrown a wrench into Gilbert’s Sister Cities 

program.

One of its two Sisters Cities is Lashan, China, and the other Antrim-Newtownabbey in Northern Ireland.

“Right now, we can’t get flights into China, so it’s not an option,” said Greg Tilque, president of the Gilbert nonprofit organization.  

But the organization is not ready to call off the trip to China this summer.

“We want to keep monitoring the situation over there with the caronavirus and see what happens,” said Tilque, who brought the program to the town in 1992. “We still want to send some students.

“Our first priority is the students and to make sure they are safe.”

He said the Gilbert organization was watching what other sister cities in Arizona with counterparts in China are doing.

Leshan is just under 800 miles from Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic has touched to all parts of China and beyond.

Arizona State University in late January issued a travel restriction to China for all its faculty, staff and students, effective immediately. No institution-related travel, such as study abroad or other academic program visits to China will be authorized or approved, ASU said.

 Other universities in the country are doing the same and many airlines have curtailed and even halted flights there.

ASU took the step following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to avoid all nonessential travel to China.

The U.S. State Department also issued a travel advisory not to travel to China and President Donald Trump signed a proclamation barring entry to the United States of most foreign nationals who traveled to China within the 14 days immediately prior to arrival in the United States 

As of last week, over 1,300 deaths have been reported from the respiratory illness, officially known as Covid-19.

In the United States, 14 cases have been reported so far, including someone from the ASU community who has not been identified either by name or by their association with the university. 

Tilque said generally each June, China sends two students to stay with host families in Gilbert for two to three weeks and when they return home, the two Gilbert students go with them and stay with their families and come back in August. 

Tilque said sending all four students to Ireland instead currently was not in the plans.

“We would have to clear it with Northern Ireland, they have to have a family to host” the two extra students,” he said.

Tilque acknowledged his board of directors will need to decide next month or so what to do because airfares will increase as the departure date approaches. 

 “We’ll just keep watching and see what we can do to make it happen,” Tilque said. “Lot of kids who go have a great experience with the different food and language and culture. Lot of kids who come back decide to go to school overseas or start traveling and have a big interest in travel.

“Kids we talked to who went years ago are still in contact with the families they were hosted by.”

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