Local students leave for two-week exchange program in Japan

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When Walla Walla High School science teacher Rob Ahrens was in high school, he took a trip to Japan as part of the school’s exchange program. The experience was so positive that when Wa-Hi stopped running a regular trip to Japan in 2004, Ahrens decided to bring the exchange program back and chaperone the trip.

Eleven Wa-Hi students, accompanied by Aherns, departed for Japan on Friday. They will be joined by 16 students from Dayton High School and will spend two weeks participating in an exchange with students from Yamate Gakuin, a junior and senior high school in Yokohama.

Most students going on the trip have already hosted Yamate students, who visited Dayton and Walla Walla in April as part of the exchange.

Travis Swan, who will be a sophomore this fall at Dayton High School, said one of the boys his family hosted will host him in Japan.

“I can’t wait to meet his family,” he wrote in an email. “We had such a great time together when he was here in Dayton ... I have been in touch with his family constantly since he left and I am ready to try new foods, visit a new culture and make new friends.”

Yamate was founded after World War II as an internationally focused school. It sends its entire sophomore class on a trip to the U.S. each April.

Dayton and Wa-Hi participate in the program every three years, hosting a group of students and sending some of their own back to Japan. The trip is entirely paid for by the students who go.

Kristine Warren, the Dayton teacher who coordinates the program, is still in touch with a Japanese student she hosted in the mid-1990s. She has visited the woman when she travels to Japan, and the woman has made several trips back to Dayton.

“You stay in contact and make friends for the rest of your life,” she said.

Ahrens, who led his first trip to Japan in 2010, said he loved seeing his students excitement, and watching them take in the new smells, sounds and sights when they arrive in the country. Because students stay with host families he said they have a great opportunity to learn about Japanese culture.

“They really get to interact on a daily and hourly basis to see how life kind of works,” said Ahrens.

While traveling to a new country is a new experience for many of the students who go, Warren said that just being in a city is a change for many of her students. Yokohama, where the students stay, is the second-largest city in Japan, with a population of about 3.7 million people.

“A lot of the kids I take have never been to Seattle, so Japan is a big deal,” she said.

The Yamate students who come to Walla Walla and Dayton often get to go boating, hunting or horseback riding with their host families.

In Japan, Dayton and Wa-Hi students will be able to go sightseeing and spend a day in Tokyo Disneyland.

Warren said that on both sides of the exchange, students go through a similar adaptation process.

“They’re nervous and afraid at first. By the time they leave, everyone’s crying,” she said.

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