Japan-US Student Exchange Builds Friendships and Agenda for Social Change

Article excerpt

Showing a friend around town can often teach natives a thing or two about the place they call home. But do it for four weeks straight, in a group of 60-plus American and Japanese students who have come together to study social change, and even a familiar world can quickly look like a very different place.

In many ways, that's the point of the venerable Japan-America Student Conference (JASC). Each year, students choose a theme and travel around the alternating host country, sharing academic debates on the topic, late-night chats, sightseeing, and the all-important experience of learning how differently international peers may view an issue.

It's all by way of promoting greater contact among members of two countries that share similar interests but still in many ways have limited understanding of one another.

"It's an intercultural, academic boot camp," says Lisa Pavia, who attends Webster University in St. Louis, Mo. "I've been thinking about friendships as well as trade issues. You can study about US- Japan relations, but this is experiencing it. You have to learn to communicate on an interpersonal level."

Doing that can often be serious business - students join in study groups that range in topic from multilateral relations to mass media to international law. But a variety of factors draw participants to the conference, which was founded in 1934 and resumed after an interruption during World War II.

From their starting point at Tokai University in Honolulu, members of the millennium JASC traveled across the United States, touring such places as the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the United Nations. They were feted by diplomats and did community- service projects together. And by the time they reached their final stop at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., they had worked through the intangible steps of blending a group of people who, just weeks before, had little more in common than an interest in learning about another country.

The process can literally point students' lives in new directions. Chinazor Ojinnaka, who just graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., said learning about JASC made him rethink his plans to go to medical school.

"It just hit me, and I started questioning my goals. I researched Japan, and realized I had more of an interest in international relations," says the delegate, who will spend next year teaching in Japan. The conference "was confidence-building and character- building."

Part of that comes from things like learning how to deal with new international roommates - "Ameri-delies" and "Japa-delies" are teamed up. …