Japanese students get a taste of Vermont

VERMONT — A team of 17 Japanese students and six administrators from Tottori Prefecture bunked up with the families of 15 Vermont students and several teachers from Mount Abraham and Harwood union high schools last week. The students explored a wide range of environmental issues together by visiting such places as the University of Vermont, Middlebury College, the Statehouse and Mount Abe.
For the second consecutive year, the Tottori provincial government has sponsored a group of Japanese students (mainly high school, but some college students) to come and get a taste of Vermont.
“They want to be seen as Japan’s green prefecture and they’ve decided that Vermont is the state that they’d like a relationship with because we have a similar outlook, history and reputation,” said Peter Lynch, executive director of Green Across the Pacific.
Shoreham-based GATP organized this educational exchange with the Tottori government to get youngsters from across the globe talking about environmental reform at an early age. Tottori is best known in Vermont for signing an International Friendship Agreement with the Green Mountain State under the direction of then-Gov. Jim Douglas in 2008.
The small group of Tottori students, teachers and government officials who arrived in Vermont March 18 spend a little more than a week living like Vermonters: collecting sap, playing in the mud and absorbing local culture at their home-stays.
In addition to a wide range of environmental activities run by naturalists, scientists and policymakers, the students also began to work on a series of long-term projects.
Last year, students designed living spaces suitable to both the Vermont and Tottori climate. This year, they’re charged with the new task of designing a museum display to deliver a visual message about an environmental topic of their choice.
Last year the exchange went only one way with Tottori students visiting Vermont but not vice-versa. This year was supposed to be different; a group of Vermont students from Mount Abe in Bristol and Harwood in Duxbury were scheduled to visit Japan in April.
That was until Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami toppled their plans. Now students and organizers are waiting patiently with their fingers crossed, hoping that the U.S. State Department lifts its current travel advisory before next month.
Tottori is located on the southwest side of Japan, over 500 miles away from where the tsunami hit in Miyagi, but nobody wants to run a risk to students.
“There’s no way that any organization can send students to a region where there’s a State Department advisory in effect,” said Lynch.
But, even if Vermont students are able to visit Japan, how many will make it?
The Tottori government has shown a firm fiscal commitment to developing a close relationship with Vermont over the past two years. After funding last year’s trip to Vermont for Tottori students and giving five local educators a view of Japan last summer, they then sent this new wave of excited youngsters to learn with Addison County students and teachers.
“The exchange is organized by the prefecture government. It’s a government initiative,” said Lynch. “It’s actually a little bit embarrassing that they’re funding it in ways that we don’t.
“Our kids have to come up with the money and that’s challenging and consequently makes it harder for us to recruit,” he added.
The three Mount Abe students who say thy can afford to visit Japan this year will pay for the trip through private funds and public fund-raisers.
“Ultimately, I’d really like to see this program open to a more diverse range of students at my own school, in terms of socioeconomic background,” said Mount Abe science teacher Gabriel Hamilton, who helped organize local activities for the exchange.
Nonetheless, the Tottori trip to Addison County and the rest of Vermont — which was due to wrap up on Monday, March 28 — is seen as a win-win by everyone involved.
“We see this exchange as a great opportunity for our students … If you can take in somebody from another culture and collaborate and establish relationships and generate a product, that’s a real skill that can help you in the future in a lot of ways,” said Hamilton.
“When kids learn that they can become close friends very quickly with kids from other cultures, the probability of conflict between our two regions goes down,” said Lynch. “We’re asking them to give some serious thought to challenging environmental and economic questions … Peace and prosperity, that’s the real goal.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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