ST. PETERSBURG — For decades, St. Petersburg has traded students with its “sister city” in Japan during a two-week summer exchange program, but with only a few weeks until this year’s students arrive city officials still are looking for a family to welcome them.
The city needs a host family to take in one of three students from Takamatsu, Japan, July 21 - Aug. 4.
The deadline to apply as a host with the Office of Cultural Affairs is extended to Wednesday. Families are asked to house a student for one week. Each student will stay with two different families to experience their lives.
“It’s really a wonderful opportunity for host families to learn more about our sister city and Japanese culture without the travel, while also getting to share their own culture,” said Elizabeth Brincklow with the Office of Cultural Affairs. “It really changes these students’ lives, and they create relationships for the rest of their lives with the people they’ve connected with on the other side of the world.”
Two females and one male will travel to St. Petersburg this summer to learn about the city’s history and culture, as well as the typical life of an American family. The host families are expected to share the city’s museums and local attractions with their guests, but also “fold them into their family lives” and daily routines, Brincklow said. The students are high school juniors and at the age where they’re still “looking for their direction in life,” she said.
Ikki Kubo hopes to go into diplomacy or work for a financial trading company, and also is interested in NASA and is a competitive sailor, Brincklow said. Juri Kwai has interests in classical music and aspires to be a chemist or a childcare worker. Hanae Yoshioka is figuring out her plans, but loves American sports, from the NBA to the NFL, and has interest in the American entertainment and travel industry, Brincklow said.
The students and their host families will meet St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and make a presentation to the City Council about their home in Takamatsu and what they have learned here. The guests also will participate in a traditional potluck Thanksgiving dinner.
This year, Maya Berrios, a junior at Northeast High School, and Malak Mahjoubi, a junior at St. Petersburg High, were selected by the city’s International Relations Committee to represent St. Petersburg. The two boarded a flight to Dallas early Monday morning at Tampa International Airport for the first leg of their journey to Japan, where they will meet with the Takamatsu mayor and Assembly Men, spend time in local schools and visit cultural sites with local families during their two-week stay. They were selected after an extensive interview process by the city International Relations Department and had to earn an appointment by the mayor.
Many St. Petersburg students who make the trip end up incorporating international relations into their career plans and bond with their host families, Brincklow said. When KC Shelton traveled to Japan in 2013, her host mother hardly spoke English and mostly communicated through sharing photos. Now, the 18-year-old Lakewood High School graduate has formed a friendship with her host mother’s granddaughter and still sends cards and photos to her host mother.
“I really learned to appreciate being close to my own family because my favorite thing we did out of all the sightseeing was just spending time with my host family,” said Shelton, who will enroll at Florida Gulf Coast University in the fall. “I also learned to trust my own abilities. I never thought I could have ever accomplished something like being an ambassador, but I was able to go through the whole process and it made me very proud of myself.”
St. Petersburg formed its relationship with Takamatsu in 1961 and has one of the longest continuous relationships within the Sister City Organization. The program was created by former President Eisenhower in a 1956 White House conference on citizen diplomacy, and since has created partnerships with nearly 2,000 cities across the world. High school students and students and teachers from Eckerd College have participated in the exchange since 1984, and students at Perkins Elementary have participated in virtual cultural exchanges for the past two years with students attending Kinashi Elementary in Takamatsu through live video broadcasting.
“They’ve grown to become very much like our family,” Brincklow said of the city officials. “We communicate with them on a regular basis for cultural events, but also about our lives, and it’s truly become a deeper relationship.”