By Caitlin Kwalwasser
When you think of the nation of Japan, the first thing that probably comes to mind for you is “sushi.” When I think of Japan, the first thing that comes to my mind is the phrase “daisuki,” or 大好き which means love. The reason that my exposure and first thoughts of a culture are so different is because I had the opportunity to participate in a program called High School Diplomats (HSD).
High School Diplomats invites 40 American students from all across the country and 40 Japanese students from all across Japan to meet at Princeton University for ten days of cultural exchange. During the 10 days, we participated in activities that ranged on a spectrum from purely recreational to academic. During Date Night, an American and a Japanese student were paired together to participate in an event akin to U.S. prom. On the flip side, the Paula Chow Diplomat Talks were an opportunity for students to break into smaller groups to discuss some of the most pressing global issues facing the world today.
One of the key parts of the American side of the program is a love for dancing. Japanese students do not get to experience dance parties the way that Americans are able to. So, as part of the program participants learned a lot about the other’s dance culture. During the Japanese Festival at Princeton, the students performed a traditional Japanese Fisherman’s dance called Soran Bushi. It’s a dance where the dancers emulate fishermen and the sea, acting as the waves coming in and out and the fishermen casting nets into the ocean. It’s a beautiful dance, and after the initial performance, each of the Japanese students taught their roommates how to do it. Even inexperienced dancers enjoyed participating in this cultural exchange. It was all about lifting each other up and trying new things. On the other hand, we also learned American line and swing dancing during the Independence Day Extravaganza. Watching Japanese students jam out to country music that they had never heard before was an inspiring experience.
However, the most meaningful aspect of the program was the roommate system. When accepted to the program, students are required to fill out a survey of likes and dislikes on which they essentially put their personality down on paper. Then, the High School Diplomats Staff receives these sheets and begins the process of roommate pairing. Each American student is paired with a Japanese student for the 10 days at Princeton University. This person becomes your life-line during the program, and she or he becomes one of the best friends you ever have in your life. While not every relationship is perfect, every relationship is special. The roommate bond is something that transcends distance like no other. By the end of the program, your best friend lives halfway around the world.
Another highlight of the program is the Homestay portion.During this part of the program, American students in the Northern Virginia, Southern Maryland, and Washington D.C. area are able to host Japanese students in their own homes. My family hosted two Japanese girls, one of whom was my roommate. We did what normal teenage girls love to do: shopping! I also had an opportunity to introduce them to my friends and show what a typical American teenager’s day out is like. My brother in particular had a very strong connection with the girls. He and I both had a love for Japanese culture even before I began the program. He knew words in their language to help them with their English and some specifics about their culture that allowed the rest of my family and I to watch out for things that could offend our students unknowingly. Not to mention, it was during this time that the girls cooked us an amazing, traditional Japanese meal, complete with ramen, sushi, tofu, and soba noodles. We were also exposed to the mystery of ale water. It was such a unique experience that I am so grateful to have done.
Now that you’ve read all this, you may be asking, “How could I do something as cool as this?” Good news! You can! The application process for HSD 2016 begins September 15, 2015 and you must have your application postmarked by Jan. 8, 2016. There is also no requirement for any prior knowledge of Japanese language for American students. The program lasts from July 27- Aug. 6, 2016 and transportation is provided for students in the Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. areas. Not to mention, this program is completely scholarship based. What this means is that it is completely free upon acceptance thanks to AIU and the Freeman Foundation. If you are selected for an interview, you will be contacted by mid-February to schedule an interview in March. You will be notified of your status by mid-April of 2016. I highly encourage anyone and everyone to try for this program. The only way you are guaranteed to fail is if you don’t try at all. This is an amazing opportunity, and is there any better way to spend your summer than making friends from all over the world?