In 2015, Wayne State University reached out to schools in Southeastern Michigan to get a group of educators together to travel to Japan for a research program. One of the stipulations in participating in this program was that these educators would then be responsible for developing a program within their schools to educate students about Japan.
Brenda Carter, President of the Board of Education for Pontiac School District, was one of the participants on this research trip, along with five other people from the Pontiac School District. Afterwards her team developed an international student exchange program from Pontiac middle schoolers, the Pontiac School District International Exchange Committee (PSDIEC). It is the only Japanese exchange student program for middle school in Oakland County.
“We thought of middle schoolers because when they’re just getting out of elementary school and going through that period is when they’re most affected by peer pressure,” Carter explains. “They start to have a lot of choices to make, but we thought if they have concrete goals and can see the global picture of how they fit into the world at an early age, then that will give them five additional years through the 12th grade to hone their skills before they go into the global economy with the skill sets they need. In middle school kids are still very impressionable; by high school many habits are already set.”
Since last October, the PSDIEC canvased the entire seventh grade class from across the school district, including the International Technology Academy. Students had to provide essays and give speeches as part of their applications, and in a blind selection process the committee chose 10 student ambassadors and two alternates to represent Pontiac, Oakland County, and the United States in Kusatsu, Pontiac’s sister city in the Shiga Prefecture of Japan.
The first-ever cohort of eleven students (an alternate was added) will now travel to Kusatsu from October 22 until November 3, where they will live in Japanese homes, attend Japanese schools, and experience Japanese life for the duration of their stay.
During this time they will attend classes in English, math, music, and physical education, while also experiencing classrooms at the elementary, middle and high school, and university levels. Cultural experiences will also be a focus.
“They will be exposed to the full gamut of the school experience while in Japan,” says Carter. “They will also talk about what it’s like to live in the United States, specifically in Pontiac and Oakland County, and here from the Japanese students about their own lives.”
Carter says her personal hope and that of the entire committee is that these young ambassadors will be able to compare and contrast the two school systems, and experience what it’s like living and studying in a country with a 98 percent literacy rate and the expectation for academic rigor and excellence there.
Students will come back and report on their experiences to local government entities and representatives of General Motors.
This visit of Pontiac’s student ambassadors to Kusatsu is just one more event in a history of positive relations between the state of Michigan and the Shiga Prefecture. Earlier this month a goodwill mission from Michigan traveled to Shiga to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the prefecture’s relationship to the state, and next year another goodwill mission will be sent from Shiga to Michigan to celebrate 50 years of being sister states with Michigan. Carter hopes that, as part of that celebration, Kusatsu will also send 10 of its own students to Pontiac for an immersive cultural education.