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Jul 27, 2022

Ciao, Lowcountry!

Celebrate Hilton Head Magazine

Photography By

Unless you’ve been living in a tree stump, you may have noticed the island has been rather … ahem … congested these past few months. How often does one muse, “Where are all these people coming from?” New Jersey? Ohio? How about Verona, Italy? Last month, 32 Italian high school students, accompanied by two chaperones, […]

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Unless you’ve been living in a tree stump, you may have noticed the island has been rather … ahem … congested these past few months. How often does one muse, “Where are all these people coming from?”

New Jersey? Ohio? How about Verona, Italy?

Last month, 32 Italian high school students, accompanied by two chaperones, arrived in Bluffton to visit area colleges and tour the Lowcountry. Maybe a little background is in order.

In June 2019 (a lifetime ago, pre-pandemic), a delegation of islanders and Town of Hilton Head Island officials set off to embark on a sister-city pact with the distant city of Verona. This being Hilton Head Island’s first such international partnership, the travelers were pleasantly surprised by their reception in the town known as Shakespeare’s favorite setting for romance and comedy.

Sister-city agreements can be traced back to 1931, when Toledo, Ohio “twinned” with Toledo, Spain, in an effort to learn more about each other’s culture, but more important, solve the deep puzzle, “How the heck did we both wind up calling ourselves Toledo?”

Twenty-five years later, post-WWII, President Eisenhower legitimized and encouraged the practice of international city partnerships. He believed that nations of the world could only heal through “people-to-people” diplomacy. It was Eisenhower’s belief that too often serious decisions made by world leaders were driven by agendas that did not reflect the true needs of their citizens. Folks from all walks of life prefer peace to war, he said. “I’ve never heard a single American businessman refer to war in terms of anything other than regret,” Eisenhower stated in his 1956 People to People address.

Eisenhower concluded that it was up to local municipalities and individuals to reach across the divide to form lasting bonds that would eclipse temporary geopolitical conflicts. He insisted that cooperation between towns in the form of students, professors, and executives, sharing ideas on science, philosophy, arts, and culture, would do much to advance the cause of world peace.

Since then, there has been a rapid proliferation of sister-city programs. There are upwards of 2,000 international partnerships in 143 countries, according to Sister Cities International, a central organization for member cities. Four cities in South Carolina currently partner with 17 cities overseas, including such disparate towns as Stornoway, Scotland, Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and Bergamo, Italy.

A cornerstone of developing a productive sister-city agreement is the education component. Student exchange programs lead to internships, work-study arrangements, and fully dimensional cultural awareness beyond what is found in textbooks. Our recent guests from Verona learned much about the Lowcountry by exploring our landscape and nature, visiting our colleges, and touring our towns.

“I envision an academic and cultural exchange program between our two cities which extends into the years and works in both directions,” said friendship pact mediator, Richard Collins of Verona. “The first task will be to evaluate how the pilot education program worked by gathering feedback from all parties. Our intention is to repeat the program in 2023. We are also interested in hosting a program of students from the Hilton Head/Bluffton area to Verona and Venice. I anticipate this is the trampoline from which the friendship pact may spring into a sister-city agreement and subsequently extend its interests to all areas.”

When a student named Ludovica was asked what she would tell her friends back in Italy about Hilton Head Island, she said, “I think I’m going to tell them to come here because it’s a beautiful place.”

Can we plan a reciprocal student visit? Of course. All it takes is a few dedicated souls on our end. “We will organize the study/travel abroad program on this end,” Collins said. “On your end, a school or university should be identified and a director appointed to structure the program. We are happy to work with this institution and director from the early developmental phase.”

Well, what’s everybody waiting for?

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