Mount Abe hosts Japanese students

BRISTOL — Students from Japan are working alongside their peers at Mount Abraham Union High School this week on an ambitious cultural and environmental exchange project investigating affordable “green” housing.
The exchange was arranged by the Shoreham-based foundation Green Across the Pacific (GATP), and is taking place this week at Mount Abe, Harwood Union High School, and at various events around the state.
The Japanese group is made up of 13 high school students, two university students, and six adults (including a mix of teachers and government officials).
Originally scheduled for last spring, the exchange was initially derailed because of the spread of the H1N1 virus. But the relationship between the Tottori prefecture and Vermont extends far beyond the year that the exchange has been in the works. GATP founder and executive director Peter Lynch said Tottori officials have been interested in developing a friendship for about eight years, and in 2008 Gov. Jim Douglas and the Tottori governor signed a letter of friendship recognizing the budding relationship.
The prefecture (the Japanese equivalent of an American state) is the least populous in Japan, and is heavily agricultural. On the country’s west coast, Tottori is smaller than Vermont but the population is similar to that of the Green Mountain State.
“One of their aspirations is to be seen as Japan’s green prefecture,” Lynch said.
Around half of the exchange group will be staying with students at Mount Abe, and the other half will head to Harwood  in Moretown. The Japanese students are working with their Vermont sister schools this week on an intensive project exploring the challenges of designing and building affordable, “green” housing.
Though students will spend some time this week in the local high schools, they’ll also meet with environmental leaders, politicians and businessmen, and collaborate on a field-based project to design a potential green housing unit.
GATP has organized similar cultural and environmental exchanges for 15 years. The exchanges first started after Lynch, a biologist by training, was invited to work with a scientist in Hong Kong in 1995. He drummed up grant money and took along students from Fair Haven Union High School, and the trip sparked the vision for an ongoing exchange program. In 1998, Vermont hosted the first exchange group from China.
For students, Lynch said exchange programs like this can be confusing, but ultimately lead to growth for both the foreign and Vermont students.
“They’re confronted with so much at once,” he said. “It’s hard to sort out what they’re experiencing. (But) kids stay in touch for a long time afterward, and as they grow older and get some distance on it, the picture gets clearer and starts to make more sense. I tell them that during the exchange. ‘When the exchange ends, it’s not over. It’s just beginning. You’re going to be making sense of this for a long time.’”
The local student hosts were all geared up for the exchange late last week.
Mount Abe Senior Nick Jarvis, 17, said his passion for engineering sparked his interest initially, and he’s most excited about the prospect of collaborating with an exchange student on the design of a “green” house.
Meanwhile, freshman Leyla Dickason, 15, said last week that she was looking forward to the chance to learn about another culture.
“I thought the cultural part of it would be really interesting,” Dickason said. “(Japan) is on the other side of the world.  Having them come here and stay in my home, I thought that would be a very fascinating experience.”
Before the exchange students arrived on Friday, Dickason and her Japanese partner e-mailed back and forth relentlessly.
“My e-mail inbox is full with e-mails from her,” Dickason, 15, said. “We’ve just been discussing lots of different things.”
Sixteen-year-old junior Sarah Selby, like Dickason, was interested in the cultural aspect of the exchange. Selby said she’s been fascinated by Japanese culture, and is eager for the chance to get to know a Japanese student.
Like Dickason, she also exchanged e-mails with her exchange partner prior to this week’s events. She was surprised to learn that despite the divides of culture and distance, she and her exchange student shared some common ground.
“We come from two different cultures, but some things are so similar,” Selby said. “She loves Michael Jackson.”
 Though Selby is excited about broaching the topic of green building, she was most excited about getting to know the Japanese students.
“I really hope that she feels as comfortable as I am here, because it’s such a friendly state,” Selby said. “I hope that she gets that feeling of community. It’d be really nice to get to know her, so that maybe next year I could get to go and see her on the reverse exchange.”
That reverse exchange is tentatively scheduled for next spring, when the Tottori students will host Vermonters for two weeks in April.
Gabriel Hamilton, who teaches ninth-grade earth science and astronomy at Mount Abe, is excitement about the exchange for many of the same reasons as the students.
Hamilton pointed out that the academic experience is one-of-a-kind. The students will be immersed in a hands-on project for a full week, working with industry professionals, politicians and experts to tackle a challenging issue. That the project ties into renewable energy and environmental issues is even more exciting.
But first and foremost, Hamilton thinks the cultural aspect of the exchange is a fantastic opportunity for Mount Abe students, particularly those who haven’t had the chance to travel extensively.
“It could be transformative,” Hamilton said, explaining that an exchange like this could influence students’ future travel, work and academic plans.
Mount Abe art teacher Bruce Babbitt has similar hopes or the week.
“What I’m most looking forward to is just the kids getting a slightly more global perspective for their lives,” Babbitt said. “We’re a little insular here. There will be some eyes opened.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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