Although the languages of Pitman High School and Kyoto Gakuen High School students were different, the captivating smiles seen on the faces of each student on Monday were exactly the same as the two cultures came together for the first time as part of the Turlock-Kyoto Gakuen Exchange Program.
“I believe that any time we stretch our students, especially as it relates to learning about other cultures, it will benefit them,” said social science teacher Ben Searway, who coordinated the visit at PHS along with retired English teacher David Jack.
“Our students were really excited and many are already asking about whether they could host students next year,” continued Searway.
Although this marks the first year that the Japanese students have stepped foot on the PHS campus, Searway said that the program has been in existence for over 20 years. Each year, 300 students of Kyoto Gakuen High School’s junior class travel to Stanislaus County, where they are divided among nine regional schools.
The buzz surrounding the exchange program was clear from the beginning as hordes of PHS students crowded around the school’s amphitheatre on Monday to watch the Japanese students perform cultural dances, as well as an energetic cheer routine.
“Yesterday was the big day on campus. So many students have commented that they loved seeing the performances and attempting to talk with them in class,” said Searway. “Many took photographs with them, and have been communicating on Snapchat and Instagram already.”
PHS was not the only Turlock Unified School District site to welcome Kyoto Gakuen students this week as part of the exchange program. Over 30 additional exchange students congregated at Turlock High School as well.
“THS has a Japanese language program and this visit by Kyoto Gakuen to THS helps to bring the language and culture home to our students as well as open the door of understanding the Japanese culture to the student body of THS,” said foreign language teacher Devon Foote.
Foote said that this program is an agreement between TUSD, Stanislaus State and Kyoto Gakuen “to promote good will, cultural awareness, and peaceful coexistence.” Kyoto Gakuen also sends a small group of students during the summer for English immersion and Turlock sends a small group to Kyoto every other year.
“It is an awesome experience for our students to travel to Japan to stay with their families and explore more fully the language and culture of Japan,” said Foote. “We would like to exchange every year, but it is not easily affordable.”
The origins of the exchange program go back 25 years to when the travel agent arranging the trip called Chris Flesuras, who was the principal at Modesto’s Beyer High School at the time, to see if he would be interested in hosting the students on his campus.
TUSD’s involvement in the program began when volunteer and Board member Barney Gordon became more involved in the district. At the time, he brought the connections he made with Kyoto from working in the program with Modesto City Schools in order to re-establish the exchanges with TUSD.
Gordon said that TUSD was one of the districts which originally started the program, but for some reason discontinued the exchanges up until a few years ago.