Pat Melgares
It may have seemed like an unlikely pairing.
In 1977, 17-year-old farm girl Rose Scott begged her parents to sign up for a 4-H program that paired Kansas families with foreign exchange students from Japan.
They relented, and for part of that next summer, 13-year-old Hiroe Yoshioka took up residence at the Scott’s home in rural Clay County.
“We had been writing back and forth to the family (in Japan) to introduce ourselves and kind of learn what to expect,” Rose Scott remembers. “We met Hiroe at the extension office; she got off the bus and they said, ‘Here’s Hiroe and here’s the Scott family. Now go have some fun.”
That was 42 years ago, marking not only the start of a lifetime friendship for two girls who lived a half world apart, but also the first year that Kansas 4-H had participated in an exchange program with the island country.
“There were about 170 (Japanese students) who came to Kansas that first year,” Scott said. “They were transported to their host county via a Greyhound bus.”
This summer, the Kansas 4-H program’s exchange program with Japan will continue with about 25 Japanese youth expected to be in Kansas for about four weeks beginning in mid-July. Like the Scott family 42 years ago, many of the families will be hosting a Japanese student for the first time.
“A lot of people are afraid, particularly with the Japanese, that they won’t know enough English,” said Mary Kay Munson, who helps to coordinate several 4-H exchange programs in Kansas.
“But other families have learned that the students don’t need to know English well. They find out really quickly that if they will just relax and let the kids play, do what kids do – such as go to the pool – they get along without language pretty well. They find out that the (Japanese) kid speaks a lot more than they thought.”
Munson notes that the program with Japan has had the longest continued success in Kansas, but the state’s 4-H office also coordinates programs with Finland, Norway, Costa Rica, Korea, Taiwan, Greece, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, Belarus and several countries in Africa.
All told, she expects that approximately 60 Kansas families will have an opportunity to host a foreign exchange student for about a month this summer. Two Kansas kids will visit one of the foreign countries this summer as part of the outbound program.
“We’re always looking for more families, and especially families that will host older teens,” Munson said.
The state’s 4-H office has a web page for families who want more information, or those wanting to learn more can call Munson at 785-238-3631.
Rose Scott is now the coordinator for the 4-H Japanese Summer Inbound Exchange program in Kansas. She said she hopes to help others enjoy the excitement she felt as a soon-to-be high school senior and welcoming Hiroe into her home.
“When Hiroe was in Kansas, the thing that intrigued me so much was how excited she got about stuff that I took for granted, like wide open spaces, stars in the sky, and hearing a thunderstorm,” Scott said. “Hearing the thunder and seeing the lightning go across the sky…she would just squeal.”
The following summer, Scott traveled to Japan through the 4-H exchange program and stayed with Hiroe’s family.
“Again, how mom and dad agreed to it, I don’t know,” Scott said. “I was just graduating from high school. The Yoshioka family hosted me and I got to see what Hiroe’s day-to-day was like.”
Scott remembers the shock of going from a state with wide open spaces and 2 million people to a crowded country with 10 million people in Tokyo alone.
“When we went out sight-seeing, we made a point to look at what color shirts we were wearing so I could spot somebody in a crowd,” Scott said.
Munson notes that experiencing differing cultures helps to shape youth’s futures.
“People may think the value is in the kids that go abroad, but the bigger impact I think is the ones who host here, because they reach a whole family, and a lot of the families have children in preschool up to high school,” she said. “Those kids have a broader view of the world, and they have an enhanced interest in what is going on around the world.”
Deryl Waldren, the northwest area 4-H Youth Development specialist in Colby, said that participants reported higher scores in their ability to be independent, speak English and make friends after completing the program.