Minerva Ochoa’s parents didn’t go to college, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing an education at Pasadena City College. What was once a pipe dream for the young woman from the city of Calexico is now a reality. This summer, Ochoa will join fellow students Jenny Chang and Bernadette Sebastian in an exchange program with another country.
Offered by the Pasadena Sister Cities Committee (PSCC), the exchange program offers students a stipend during their stay in their host country. The program also provides students with a host family to stay with and a chance to work. The only thing that students have to pay for is a ticket for the airplane. This semester, after a vigorous application process, Ochoa and Chang will be traveling to Germany while Sebastian will be going to Japan.
All three students were ecstatic when they found out they were selected for the exchange program.
“[My parents] were super excited,” said Ochoa. “Just because your parents didn’t go to college doesn’t mean that their kids can’t achieve their dreams.”
Ochoa has been learning German at PCC, but she knew that the classes could only take her so far. According to Ochoa, the opportunity to be in an environment where everyone speaks German will help her hone her own language skills.
Ochoa is also taking advantage of being in Europe by traveling to London after her stay in Germany.
Like Ochoa, Chang will also be going to Germany. However the California State University Fullerton alumna almost missed out on her chance to travel to another country.
“At the time I couldn’t actually apply because the age limit was 25,” said Chang, who is 28 years old.
Chang had an ally, though, in Olivia Bueno, the president of the Germania Culture Club, who relentlessly worked to make sure that the age limit was raised to 30.
The decision was made because although PCC students below the age of 25 couldn’t apply for the exchange program, the German students who came through the exchange program to America were often older than the previous age limit.
“I was limited by the age group,” Chang said. “And then to apply and get in was just … it was pretty surreal.”
Chang learned German when she was at Fullerton, but what rekindled her passion to relearn the language was when Chang was visiting Korea. At a water park she overheard two men speaking German.
“I was trying to talk to them and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Chang said. “I had forgotten everything.”
For a while, Chang tried to study herself, but realized that she needed the help of others to really grasp the language. That’s when she decided to enroll at PCC.
“I just wanted to take classes to improve the German that I knew and I started looking for opportunities,” Chang said
Chang attributes her participation in the exchange program to the German professors she’s had at PCC and to Bueno.
“I think that this journey, it definitely wouldn’t have been possible without the Germania Club president,” Chang said. “She cares so much about people.”
Sebastian, like Chang and Ochoa, applied for Germany.
“They only choose two candidates per country,” Sebastian said, who applied to go to Germany because she has an associate’s degree in German. Sebastian also wanted to travel to the country because she’s a dance major and she wanted to explore Germany’s rich dance culture.
However, she was chosen to go to Japan instead.
“I put Japan as my second option not knowing that’s where they would want me to go,” Sebastian said.
Sebastian was a little bit disappointed since that was not where she had originally wanted to go, but her perspective about the situation has changed. Sebastian is uncertain about her upcoming trip to Japan, but is eager for a chance to, according to her, “dive in cold water.”
Ironically, Sebastian has a sister that is studying Japanese and is picking up a few phrases from her sibling to use when she is in her host country.
Sebastian plans to explore her environment when she is in Japan. She wants to visit Mt. Fuji, see the Sakura blossoms and eat a lot of sushi.
Like Ochoa and Chang, Sebastian is also a part of the Germania Culture Club and, like Chang, Sebastian has found Bueno to be a positive influence in her time at PCC.
“I love the movie nights that they do,” Sebastian said. “It kind of trains my German a little bit since there’s no one speaking it at home.”
Bueno deserves the praise by her fellow club members. When she became the president of the Germania Culture Club she realized what a resource the PSCC would be for students. With that in mind, she approached the PSCC and got involved.
Besides being an excellent resource for students looking to travel abroad, Bueno was impressed with how long the PSCC has worked on making sure that exchanges between the U.S. and other countries were fostered.
“This relationship with the Pasadena Sister Cities has been going on since 1948,” Bueno said.
After World War II the citizens of Pasadena prepared care packages that they sent to Germany to help the citizens whose homes were obliterated in the war. In the process, the Pasadena residents wrote their names on the care packages and messages to the Germans who would be receiving their contributions. The citizens of Germany replied to the messages and a committee was formed to strengthen ties between the two countries.
“We’re talking about two countries that were enemies and our citizens opened their hearts to help them,” Bueno said.
In 1991, the exchange program was formed to make sure that younger generations would also learn about cultures.
Bueno is still fascinated by the exchange program and not just because students get to travel to another country. Bueno is amazed that there are families in the host countries willing to open their doors and their homes to PCC students for four to six weeks.
“In that way students do not need to pay for a hotel or lodging or food,” Bueno said.
Bueno is adamant that students learn about cultures and is delighted that Chang, Ochoa and Bernadette were chosen to travel to another country.
“They could have spent their summer here, but no they are going abroad,” Bueno said.