Students as Citizen Diplomats

Since 1986, Bainbridge Island, WA, has maintained a strong relationship with its sister city Ometepe, Nicaragua. Instead of learning about foreign relations, Island students and teachers forge their own personal connections. Here are their stories.


Exchange student Kirsten shares how living with a family in Ometepe changed her life.


A group photo taken in Santa Teresa, Ometepe. Photo by Linda Snyder
A group photo taken in Santa Teresa, Ometepe.
Photo by Linda Snyder

Coffee and Washington state will be forever linked thanks to the success of the Seattle-based coffee company Starbucks. But there is another, lesser-known story about coffee and the Northwest. It is the story of Ometepe, Nicaragua and Bainbridge Island, Washington. These two islands of roughly equal size, but highly disparate incomes, are sister cities.

Sister city relations are forged through Sister Cities International, a U.S.-based program that seeks to foster better foreign relations from the bottom up, rather than at the national level. These two islands started their relationship in 1986 during the height of the Sandinista revolution. While the U.S. government was funneling arms to the Contras through Iran, citizens of Bainbridge Island went to visit the towns of Ometepe and reach out to the islanders on a person-to-person basis.

Listen in as Bainbridge students talk about the exchange with Ometepe


Kirsten. Photo by Brendan Clarke
Antonio. Photo by Brendan Clarke
Emily. Photo by Brendan Clarke.
Sara. Photo by Brendan Clarke
Alex. Photo by Brendan Clarke
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Life in Ometepe. - Photo by Alex Witt
Life in Ometepe, Nicaragua.
Photo by Alex Witt

When the trade embargo lifted in 1990, Bainbridge citizen diplomats began buying Ometepe’s organic coffee at more than fair-trade prices. Ometepe coffee beans are roasted on Bainbridge Island, sold in the United States, and all profits (along with thousands of dollars in donations) are returned to Ometepe. The money is used as direct foreign aid to build schools and implement water sanitation projects, among other projects.

But this is just the framework of the relationship. Coffee provides the means for the continuing relationship, yet the heart of this cultural exchange extends deeply into the communities of both islands. Each year, teachers from Ometepe visit Bainbridge Island and high school students from Bainbridge go down to Nicaragua to offer their labor and resources for locally planned community service projects like those mentioned above. Not only do the students get the opportunity for service learning, but they also stay with local families and create lasting relationships.

Personal relationships are the goal of the program. These are one-on-one friendships and connections that build the type of cross-cultural understanding necessary to create a just foreign policy. By simply leaving the country, the students learn about other cultures, their own culture, and perhaps most importantly, the impact of American culture on others.


How to Get Involved

Logo of Sister Cities International

"Does my city have a sister city?""How many sister cities are there in Australia, or in Missouri?" Sister Cities International's online membership directory is the place to answer these and similar questions, and to discover the world of sister city partnerships. The online directory lists Sister Cities International members and their sister city partnerships around the world. Through this directory you can search by region and by country. You can then link directly to the specific information about each of these unique sisters city relationships.

You can also find out more about our story and find more details on the student/teacher exchange on the sister island website of Bainbridge Island and Ometepe. If you have questions for the Bainbridge teachers or students, send us an email and we'll forward it to the school.

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Photo of Brendan Clarke


We would like to thank the students and teachers from Bainbridge High School who took the time to share their Ometepe stories with us.

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