On her first trip to Japan two years ago, Sumter County High School senior, Tierra Nunn had to take two flights. The first landed in Seattle, still within cell phone range of friends who she could call and text, keeping her home with her though she was on the other side of the country. But as the flight to Japan prepared to take off, she had to shut off her phone and she felt a tear well up in her eye. Suddenly she was alone, two-thousand seven-hundred and fifty-five miles further from home than she had ever been and about to go to a whole new country where she was afraid nobody spoke her language or ate the food she was used to. Many of her friends thought she was foolish for taking a plane trip after what happened during 9/11. Some people told her they expected she would turn up missing.
But one person closer to home had a very different attitude:
“My mother always told me she wanted me to see the world,” Tierra said. “She wanted me to have as much exposure as possible. She encouraged me to take the trip.”
The opportunity for the trip was offered through the cultural exchange program between Sumter County Schools and the sister city program with Konu, Japan and Miyoshi City, now in its 23rd year. Last week, the school system hosted twenty-five Japanese students who stayed with host families in Sumter County. The school system will be sending students from Sumter County to Japan this Spring.
Twenty-one years before Tierra first went to Japan, Akiko Hasegawa was ten years old when Griff Dudley, then a student from Americus High School, stayed in her home in Konu, Japan in the very first year of the exchange program. Neither of her parents spoke English and Griff did not speak Japanese. Yet, Akiko remained transfixed by the foreigner who spent hours drawing and taking pictures of the things she had seen all of her life and had taken for granted.
Both Tierra and Akiko would be changed by the program that began with each of them coming face to face with the unfamiliar. For Akiko, the desire to communicate with this foreigner became an obsession that she carried into the present.
“He was writing a diary, he wanted to remember his trip,” she said. “He was feeling something, getting things from his experience. I wanted to know what he was feeling. But it was not possible for me to ask him or for him to tell me.”
From that frustration, Akiko began studying English relentlessly. Twenty-three years later, she returned to Americus as one of the English teachers overseeing the students on the program.
Tierra was likewise inspired to learn even more. She was very impressed by the educational system in Japan and saw that learning was a privilege that she decided to make the most of.
“When I got back, I took three AP classes in one semester,” she said. “I also decided I wanted to learn both Spanish and Japanese.”
Both credit the experience of traveling abroad as having provided them with the tools they needed to take on new challenges.
“Going to Japan gave me confidence,” Tierra said. “I feel like if I can go thousands of miles away from home without my mom, I can conquer anything.”
“Travel broadens your perspective and helps you value and appreciate different cultures,” Akiko said. “It also helps you understand your home better than you ever could have if you never left.”
Like many of the Japanese visitors, she has been impressed with the freedom and individuality of Americans:
“People here say their opinion straight out,” Akiko said. “If they want to say ‘no’ they say ‘no.’ Japanese people hesitate to say no. It is easier in America for us to know what you are thinking.”
Tierra went the following year to Japan as well. Akiko made several trips to America living with host families in Bakersfield, California and attending an English school in Los Angeles.
Both credit their parents for encouraging them to make the trip.
“My parents lived in a restricted generation. They decided they wanted to show their kids a different kind of lifestyle,” Akiko said. “They wanted to show me that there were different ways to live other than what they had known their whole lives.”
For Tierra, the message from her mother was similar:
“A lot of times children don’t have a support system and people don’t encourage them,” said Ivey Nunn. “I want Tierra to know that she is her only limitation.”
This year, Ms. Nunn hosted two exchange students at her home on Mitchell Street in Americus. One of the Japanese students, fourteen-year-old Ayu Hiraki, said the highlight of her trip was learning to cook ribs, green beans, and macaroni and cheese with her host family.
Tierra , and fellow Americus High student Kaylon Harris, raised the money needed to go from a variety of fund raising opportunities. Kaylon is taking his experiences in Japan to the U.S Coast Guard Academy which he will be attending next year.
The next trip to Japan will take place around Spring break in 2015. Students interesting in learning more about the program should contact Media Specialist Cheryl Fletcher at the South Campus.