Educational Exchange

Pontiac program connects cultures across the world
Pontiac Middle school students, along with teachers and chaperones, traveled to Japan to experience being immersed in the country's culture. Photos courtesy of Brenda Carter.

Oakland County residents take great pride in the region’s ethnic diversity and academic excellence.

The Pontiac School District has taken it one step further by leveraging the county’s resources to connect local educators and students with others around the world to share knowledge and build relationships.

Pontiac School District Board of Education Trustee Brenda Carter was board president in 2015 when she heard about an opportunity for 10 teachers to go on a research trip to Japan.

She jumped at the chance to apply and Pontiac was chosen to participate. “Part of the research project was to develop a program that would immerse Japanese children into the American culture” and vice versa, Carter says. And so began a student exchange program.

From Oct. 25 to Nov. 2, 2017, 11 Pontiac middle school students along with teachers and other adult chaperones lived in the city of Kusatsu, located in Japan’s Shiga Prefecture in the southern-central Kansai region.

Although Pontiac and Kusatsu have been sister cities for 40 years and some Pontiac high school students traveled to Japan over a decade ago, this was the first time middle schoolers were given the same opportunity.

To prepare for studying alongside Japanese students, the Pontiac students took weekly language and cultural immersion classes for roughly a year. Japanese government officials were so impressed by the students’ performance, Carter notes, that they decided it would be advantageous to have Japanese students study in Pontiac, too. A group of seven middle schoolers, four teachers and nearly 20 dignitaries were slated to spend a week in Pontiac in late 2018.

Getting the Pontiac students to Kusatsu was a community effort, with major donations from both residents and corporations covering air fare and incidentals. The Pontiac School District International Exchange Committee accepts donations for cultural exchange through the Pontiac Alumni Foundation.

Carter says this Japanese student exchange program is the only one in Oakland County. “These children, if you had seen them over there … you would be astounded by their efficiency, their proficiency, the whole nine yards,” Carter says. “These are inner-city kids, but when they were taken out of their environment of poverty, they thrived.”

And any barriers between the Japanese and American kids were quickly scaled.

“After the first few minutes of them being around each other, they became kids,” Carter says. “They were playing and they were laughing and they were joking and they were eating together. “It was just phenomenal. This is what our world can be.”

Written by Sydnee Thompson for the 2019 edition of Oakland County Prosper magazine.